If nothing else, Comcast has already improved NBC’s relationship with the Hollywood talent community with its imminent naming of Bob Greenblatt as president of programming.
The Peacock network hasn’t been considered a talent-friendly place since the regimes of Brandon Tartikoff and Warren Littlefield in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Under outgoing CEO Jeff Zucker, efforts such as “super-sizing” sitcoms at first proved mildly grating to the creative community; then a run of reality programming brought about by parent company General Electric’s mandate to “manage for margins” raised their ire.
In the last two years, however, 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, for instance, in tearing down Greenblatt’s predecessor, Ben Silverman.
But Greenblatt, brought up as a middle class, music theater geek in the Midwest, is universally described by actors, writers, directors, and producers as someone “on the side of talent.” His ascendance to the NBC creative throne follows a six-year run at Showtime, where he was instrumental in moving the network 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.
Alan Ball recalls first meeting Greenblatt before American Beauty hit it big, when he was just another Hollywood writer pitching around a then-unknown show to development executives about a family of funeral directors called Six Feet Under, and being struck by his earnest commitment to letting artists follow their vision.
“Most of the development executives I met with made me feel like a name on a list of people that they were supposed to talk to,” Ball said in an interview with The Daily Beast yesterday. “They had no sense of what kind of show I wanted to do. But Bob had read my plays and was very interested in my particular voice.”
“He’s the strongest creative guy in the marketplace out there right now.”
Ilene Chaiken, creator of The L Word, remembers being nervous the first time she met Greenblatt because her show had been ordered at Showtime by his predecessor Jerry Offsay but had not yet aired on the network.
“I was worried because he hadn’t seen the show yet and new network presidents like to put on the shows that they developed,” Chaiken told The Daily Beast. “But he wasn’t territorial at all. He was entirely about what’s best for the network. He became deeply engaged with the show and we ended up having a great, interesting, fun run together.”
Since leaving his post as Showtime’s president of programming in June, Greenblatt has kept a relatively low profile. But his appointment to lead NBCU, which is widely expected to be formally announced by Comcast early next week, thrusts Greenblatt into arguably the most visible, challenging, and some would say foolhardy, role in entertainment: saving NBC. Or at least making it respectable again.
“He’s the strongest creative guy in the marketplace out there right now,” says of former colleague who asked for anonymity since Greenblatt will now be a competitor.
Sources say that Greenblatt’s arrival at NBCU was precipitated by an assist from former News Corp. executive Peter Chernin, who has long been a confidante of the former Showtime executive. Chernin also vacations on Martha Vineyard with Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, and over the summer in his role as consultant on the NBC integration mentioned to Roberts that Greenblatt wanted a bigger job and a larger production budget than what was available at Showtime.
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. While the management structure set to be implemented by Comcast COO Steve Burke, who will replace Zucker as head of NBCU, is loaded with headline grabbing, Hollywood chattering class-type executives like Ron Meyer, Lauren Zalaznick, and Bonnie Hammer, the most-intense gaze will undoubtably be on Greenblatt and the performance of NBC.
Calls to Comcast and Greenblatt were not returned.
Jay Sures, a partner at United Talent Agency who oversees television, says, “We are all excited by Bob’s arrival at NBC. We think he can make quick decisions, has a point of view, and knows where he wants to take the company to hopefully develop its brand.”
Chaiken, who worked with NBC during the Tartikoff reign on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, thinks Greenblatt can “infuse the culture” with his contagious enthusiasm.
The creative sensibilities that worked for Greenblatt at Showtime won’t work at NBC, though. 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 cache, he has to develop broad-based, general-interest content for a mass commercial audience, development muscles he hasn’t exercised in nearly a decade.
“He was good for what Showtime needed, which was to create enough noise to not be drowned out by HBO” says a outside network source, “but I’m not sure how that translates to a broadcast network where he has to hit specific demographics and get big ratings.”
NBC so far lacks a Top 10 primetime hit this season, despite putting more new shows on the air than any other broadcast network. The network has already cancelled J.J. Abrams’ expensive drama Undercovers and a number of other new shows are in danger of being axed as well. The hope among the creative community is that Comcast will let Greenblatt shape the channel in a new image rather than trying to recreate a former or rival one.
The former colleague says Greenblatt is “very personally involved in everything he touches.”
“He spends a lot of time on scripts and casting,” says the former colleague. “He’s not the type of executive that throws a lot of stuff at the wall to see what sticks.”
Sources say that despite his unassuming nature Greenblatt has the ambition necessary to meet the challenge. He is competitive and intense, but not egotistical or consumed by power.
“He doesn’t have that borderline, exhibitionist narcissism that other network executives have,” says Ball. “He’s not wrapped up in his own power. Bob loves his work and is driven by a real passion for television. I hope [Comcast] lets him find and nuture new voices as opposed to making him look for material that resembles something that succeeded in the past, which is what broadcast networks tend to do.”
The problem with that theory is that it presupposes that Comcast is patient enough to wait out a prolonged turnaround at NBC. In addition to repairing the network’s programming, Greenblatt also faces the secondary challenge of having to right 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.
Sures, however, thinks Comcast will give Greenblatt time to execute his turnaround plan.
“They both know they aren’t going to change NBC in two years,” Sures says. “He’s going to take a building blocks approach to it, with a goal of finding a show or two a year that works and going from there. It’ll be at least 18 months before Bob’s impact is felt and until then I think he’ll be flying under the radar, managing expectations and asking for patience.”
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, Black Men, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.