Since he took over at NBC1 in January 2011, I’ve given Bob Greenblatt a fair amount of guff. That made sense when the network routinely occupied the Nielsen basement. But I’ve given some of that guff fairly recently, even as the network has finished either first or second in the year-end Nielsen ratings for the last three TV seasons.
NBC is owned by NBCUniversal, a major investor in Vox Media, which publishes Vox.
In 2015, I said that NBC’s fall schedule strongly suggested it had no idea what it was doing. Later that year, I described the network’s variety show Best Time Ever as NBC in a nutshell: desperate, frantic, a little sociopathic. Heck, earlier this week I pointed out that the comedy bloc he recently said he’s so intent to rebuild was originally dismantled by him.
So even though I’m about to say some nice things about NBC and Greenblatt’s pretty good fall 2016 schedule, I’m still deeply skeptical of his current "big events first; regular programming later" strategy.
But you know what? I like all three of NBC’s new fall shows, its fall schedule makes sense, and Greenblatt’s overall approach of leading with broad-appeal hits and then trying to supplement them with more artistically adventurous programming is finally starting to bear some fruit.
It might be time to stop worrying and learn to love Bob Greenblatt.
NBC has brought much of this snark upon itself
Don’t get me wrong. Greenblatt’s seeming casual indifference to the press is a thing to behold, and probably unnecessarily creates some of the snark and animosity that NBC attracts.
For instance, when a reporter at the 2016 Television Critics Association press tour asked Greenblatt the inevitable question of whether NBC felt its reality show The Apprentice played any particular part in Donald Trump’s rise to prominence (and, thus, subsequent run for president), he responded with, "Isn't the role of television to create celebrity in the world?"
He later added the word salad of, "We were happy to have a show that was doing really well with a guy that was a big TV star. It's impossible to predict where it goes from there. It's surprised all of us that he would want to do this, but I guess that's what's great about this country."
It sounds good, but the whole quote is fundamentally empty, a way of talking about Trump without really talking about Trump. Obviously, NBC isn’t going to take credit for creating a presidential nominee whom many in its industry dislike. But Greenblatt’s ability to say things without really saying things remains unparalleled in a business where doing so is sadly typical.
And it’s not as if Greenblatt hasn’t deserved some of the snark he’s received over the years. In particular, his handling of the NBC comedy brand has been catastrophically bad. During the early years of his tenure (when the network was in the dumps), he admirably stuck by some of NBC’s smaller, more cult comedies, like Community and Parks and Recreation, but often left them to wither in timeslots where they aired against much more popular competition. (Perhaps tellingly, Parks’ ratings perked up a bit in its final season, when it moved to a less competitive night.)
And then he spent recent years — when NBC’s success with sports, event programming, and dramas boosted its fortunes — attempting to make NBC’s comedy brand broader by programming lots of forgettable star vehicles (like Matthew Perry’s Go On) and incredibly soft family comedies (like The Michael J. Fox Show).
But that hasn’t really borne fruit. Of the many half-hour comedies NBC has launched since 2010, only seven have made it past season one, and only two have made it to season three — and one of those was canceled at the end of said third season.
And NBC’s upcoming fall schedule — which, again, is pretty good — still over-relies on big events that might draw big ratings for one night but can’t really be repeated more than once or twice per year. (The latest big event Greenblatt announced? A 90th birthday party for singer Tony Bennett.)
But the longer Greenblatt does this job, the more apparent it becomes that some of his scheduling moves boast a sneaky brilliance. And if he manages to get viewers to check out shows as unorthodox as some of the ones he’s launching this fall, hey, I might subscribe to what he’s doing with even more fervor.
Is Greenblatt using his more mass-market hits to sneak better TV on the air?
A lot of my disappointment with Greenblatt (as well as others’ disappointment with him) has stemmed from the way he transformed NBC, a network generally associated with "quality TV" for almost all of my lifetime, into a relentless purveyor of mass-market schlock.
Shows like The Blacklist or Chicago Fire or The Voice aren’t terrible television, by any means, but they lack a personal voice or artistic spark. The NBC that once gave us quality TV like Cheers, Seinfeld, and ER has seemed to dissipate a little more with every season.
But recently, I’ve been reading Sally Bedell’s 1981 book Up the Tube, which traces the history of television in the 1970s as seen through the prism of Fred Silverman, who headed up CBS, ABC, and NBC during various parts of that decade.
The 1970s were a tumultuous time in TV, when the seeds that yielded almost all of our current TV landscape were planted. And Silverman’s theory was essentially that viewers could be persuaded to watch quality TV programming and even develop deep relationships with it, but that quality shows needed to be sandwiched between other hits that targeted mass audiences and burned a little hotter and brighter.
There was perhaps no better example of this than Silverman’s tenure at ABC, a time when he launched such lowest common denominator TV as Charlie’s Angels and Laverne and Shirley but also created an environment where classics like cop comedy Barney Miller and the family drama Family could survive (and in Miller’s case, eventually thrive).
The more I scrutinize what Greenblatt is doing at NBC today, the more similar his approach seems to Silverman’s.
This fall, Greenblatt will launch two hugely unlikely hits in This Is Us, a Parenthood-style dramedy about a group of seemingly unconnected people who all have the same birthday, and The Good Place, a comedy set in the afterlife that borrows much of its storytelling structure from Lost. Both are miles better than anything NBC has brought to the schedule in years. Together with NBC’s third new show, a time-travel drama called Timeless, they form a cautiously adventurous slate.
Of course, he can’t simply throw This Is Us to the wolves. Any new series, and especially one with a premise on the less immediately arresting end of the spectrum, needs bolstering from other shows that known to be more durable hits.
And that’s where the less flashy but more solid performers like The Voice and the Chicago fleet of shows come in. If Greenblatt really is using his established hits to provide protection for more ambitious TV, it’ll mark a surprise return to a theory of TV scheduling that fell out of favor with the rise of crime show-heavy CBS in the 2000s.
I don’t entirely think this strategy will work. In particular, NBC is taking the promising young comedy Superstore, pairing it with The Good Place, and throwing both to the Thursday-night wolves, where they will air opposite CBS’s hugely rated comedy bloc. (I get why NBC is doing this, and understand the network’s thirst to return to the Thursday schedule it once dominated, but it feels a little too soon.)
And while I admire Greenblatt’s insistence that, say, Superstore is as widely watched as The Voice once you add the long tail of viewers who catch up on DVR and Hulu, it’s hard to believe advertisers will find that idea as convincing.
But I’m still thinking I got one big thing wrong about Greenblatt all these years. Where I once saw a cynical guy who believed that what middle America wants is a bunch of bland, unmemorable crime procedurals, I now see a guy who thinks he can use bland, unmemorable crime procedurals to trick middle America into watching more ambitious fare. Yes, that’s an equally cynical take, but if it leads to better TV across the board, I’ll take what I can get.