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11.11.10

Can This Man Save NBC?

Bob Greenblatt made Showtime a must-watch network with shows like Weeds and Dexter. Now he’s expected to turn around NBC Universal Entertainment. Peter Lauria on why he’s the right man for the challenge.

Since leaving his post as Showtime’s president of programming in June, Bob Greenblatt has kept a relatively low profile. But he’s about to be thrust into arguably the most visible, challenging, and some would say foolhardy, role in entertainment: saving NBC. Or at least making it respectable again.

Greenblatt is widely expected to named president of NBC Universal Entertainment in Comcast’s imminent reorganization, which Wednesday claimed its second executive head, the neatly coiffed one of Jeff Gaspin. The first, of course, being NBC CEO Jeff Zucker’s.

Greenblatt’s ascendance made Gaspin redundant in the management structure set to be implemented by Comcast COO Steve Burke, who will replace Zucker as head of NBCU. And while the reorganization is loaded with headline grabbing, Hollywood chattering class-type executives like Ron Meyer, Lauren Zalaznick, and Bonnie Hammer, the most-intense gaze will be on Greenblatt.

A music-theater geek beloved by the creative community, Greenblatt was instrumental in turning around Showtime, moving it from an HBO also-ran into a legitimate contender for prestige if not ratings. Under Greenblatt’s watch, the Showtime brand became synonymous with shows such as The L Word, Huff, Weeds, Dexter, and Nurse Jackie. As an independent producer and former executive vice president of Fox, Greenblatt was involved in the development of such hits as Six Feet Under, The X-Files, Party of Five, Ally McBeal, King of the Hill, and Melrose Place, to name a few.

“He’s the best of anyone out there,” a former colleague says simply of Greenblatt’s resume.

“He’s the best of anyone out there,” a former colleague says simply of Greenblatt’s resume.

Unlike at Showtime, however, where Greenblatt was able to grow and flourish under the radar because no one paid much attention to the channel, his every move will be under scrutiny from the beginning at NBC. And the network has become so despised—for reasons ranging from abandoning 10 p.m. dramas to its treatment of Conan O’Brien—that at times it appears people are rooting for its failure. The media took great delight in tearing down Greenblatt’s predecessor, Ben Silverman. This year’s primetime network slate, developed under Gaspin, has thus far failed to produce any hits—the network already cancelled J.J. Abrams’ expensive drama Undercovers and a number of other new shows are in danger of being axed as well.

Jeff Gaspin: Out at NBC The sensibilities that worked for Greenblatt at Showtime won’t work at NBC either. While 2 million viewers is a hit for the pay-TV network, those kinds of numbers would get Greenblatt fired from NBC. Now instead of looking for niche-appeal content that brings cachet, he has to develop broad-based, general-interest content for a mass commercial audience.

“He was good for what Showtime needed,” says a outside network source, “but I’m not sure how that translates to a broadcast network.”

But, cautions the former colleague of Greenblatt, “this isn’t a situation where Bob’s going to go in and develop five hits shows in the first year. It is going to take a few years to fix that network.”

If Comcast is patient enough to wait, that is. In addition to exercising a different set of creative muscles, Greenblatt also faces the secondary challenge of having to right NBC’s programming while also fixing its business model. A mass exodus of viewers to cable and computers has eaten into broadcast television’s advertising revenue, leaving the networks in financial disarray. Comcast didn’t buy NBCU for the broadcast network; it bought it for the cable channels. A recent financial report put the value of the cable channel USA alone at $11 billion while also claiming that the NBC broadcast network was worth negative $600 million. Despite Comcast’s public commitment to keeping the broadcast network, rumors are rampant that it will eventually look to sell or transition it to a cable network in a few years.

Sources say that despite his unassuming nature Greenblatt has the ambition necessary to meet the challenge. That’s good, because we’ll all be watching.

Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.