“I certainly don’t want to turn NBC into Showtime,” Robert Greenblatt explained at his first press tour session as chairman of NBC entertainment.
This may be disappointing news to those hoping that the man responsible for “Dexter,” “Nurse Jackie” and much of Showtime’s Emmy-baiting slate of shows would be attempting to turn NBC into the world’s most prominent cable channel.
(Fienberg’s live-blog has more details on all that Greenblatt said.)
Of course, NBC has essentially been functioning that way during the long, rudderless latter half of the Jeff Zucker administration. Mired in fourth place for years, the network has had no choice but to schedule and continually renew quality but low-rated shows with niche appeal – “Community,” “Chuck,” “Parks and Recreation,” even the DirecTV deal with “Friday Night Lights” – that might seem more at home on cable.
Greenblatt’s goal – which may be an impossible one, given the state of the broadcast TV business, and the deep hole that Zucker, Ben Silverman and company dug for him – is to find a way to keep the quality and “excitement” (a word Greenblatt used dozens of times in the panel) high, while getting the ratings to match.
Asked specifically whether a Showtime series could exist on a broadcast network, Greenblatt pointed to the low ratings that CBS got from rerunning “Dexter” during the Writers Guild strike a few years ago. (Of course, it was reruns, but still.)
“I think those shows work in those small universes,” he said, “where the business model isn’t based on the most people watching a show. What’s interesting psychologically and conceptually about those shows is some of the thinking we have to bring to network television. I don’t mean serial killers and pot-selling soccer moms, but we have to find ways to conceptually excite the audience, which has so many things to watch, so many diversions.
“I would love to bring some of the creative vitality to NBC that we had at Showtime,” he elaborated. “We just have to do it in a way that’s broad and commercial. The devil’s in the details.”
Greenblatt’s in a tricky position with his first NBC schedule. Because the sale of NBC from General Electric to Comcast took so long, he wasn’t allowed to assume his office until development season had begun. So all of the shows on next season’s schedule were initially purchased by the previous administration. He insisted over and over that “this is my schedule,” but we may not really see his creative imprint for another year.
Still, these are the shows he has to work with now. Asked to name a few series that fit what he was talking about in terms of psychological and/or conceptual excitement, he chose the “Prime Suspect” remake, with Maria Bello as a New York cop dealing with a hostile workplace, and the mid-season musical drama “Smash,” with Debra Messing and “American Idol” alum Katharine McPhee.(*) He acknowledged that “Smash” is “maybe the most adventurous show that we do and ultimately may be the most narrow show that we do.”
(*) Those of you following me on Twitter or listening to the podcast know that I’ve decided that this is, in fact, “The Smash Williams Story,” with McPhee replacing Gaius Charles in the role of the brash Dillon Panthers tailback. The musical number about how Smash can’t get anyone to consider him to play quarterback will bring tears to your eyes, boys and girls.
One show not mentioned in response to that question is “The Playboy Club,” one of two network shows this season set in the same era as “Mad Men” (ABC’s “Pan Am” is the other). A critic rightly pointed out that “Mad Men,” for all that we talk about it, has ratings that would merit instant cancellation on a broadcast network, so why are we going there?
“I have great respect for ‘Mad Men,'” Greenblatt insisted, “but I think in spite of the period being similar, ‘Playboy Club’ is much more of an energized soap opera… It’s the right kind of thing for us to try.”
The one thing Greenblatt may have in his favor is the presence of new management who have more enthusiasm for the broadcast business. Under Zucker and GE, he said, “There was a sense that it’s a declining business, and let’s just manage the decline and get the best out of it.” Under Comcast, he said, “There’s a real enthusiasm for broadcast television, and a desire to take this NBC, a venerable American institution, and raise it back up.”
It just may take Greenblatt a long time to fix the mess he’s been handed.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org