NBC loads up on writer pacts

Chairman Bob Greenblatt unveils development deals, greets press

How do you marry the sizzle of cable programming with the size of broadcast audiences? In the vision for primetime NBC Entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt outlined at TCA press tour on Monday, it’s that kind of amalgam he’s trying to master to reverse the network’s fortunes.

Citing a flurry of freshly announced development and producer deals for the likes of Greg Daniels, Will Ferrell and Sean Hayes, Greenblatt made clear he wants to establish the Peacock as a home for top talent on both sides of the camera. But he also acknowledged that broadcast’s inherent need to please all portions of the audience can be more challenging than what he encountered during his previous tenure as Showtime’s programming topper.

“While I want to guide them into a broad arena, I don’t want to tie their hands to suck the creativity out of the show,” Greenblatt told reporters at the Beverly Hilton. “Cable has been such a dream for a lot of writers that broadcast is more difficult.”

While assembled press cited his work at Showtime again and again, Greenblatt cited his experience as a programming exec at Fox Broadcasting in the 1990s as a reference point for his current creative outlook.

“We kept our eye on the notion of you’ve got to do things that nobody else is doing,” Greenblatt said. “The challenge gets harder, but I think you can be broad and still come up with things that people are conceptually excited about.”

As examples of upcoming fall shows that manage to explore in broadcast vehicles the kind of provocative ideas that succeed on cable, he cited cop drama “Prime Suspect” for taking a fresh approach to a well-worn genre. He also cited the Broadway-set midseason drama “Smash” but even there noted there’s risk in its distinctive approach.

“‘Smash’ is the most adventurous show we do, and the most narrow show we do,” he acknowledged. “It’s hard to know where we’re going to come up on the continuum here.”

Greenblatt laid out some specific goals for reinvigorating primetime, like transplanting comedy programming outside of the Peacock’s Thursday stronghold, as well as rejuvenating the multicamera format that he lamented has become something of a “dirty word.”

With a Michael Buble special in the pipeline, Greenblatt said he has his eye on bringing more variety-type programming to NBC and is on the lookout for top talent he believes would be required to give the genre another go. “There are some variety concepts that we’re talking about that just have to have the right personalities to front them,” Greenblatt said. “You need big stars.”

Greenblatt is also building out the team to help him execute on the vision. He discussed a string of hires he’s made in recent months to bolster NBC’s creative efforts, including the appointment, announced Monday, of longtime CBS exec Bela Bajaria to head the expanded Universal Media Studios primetime production wing. He has made big changes in the network programming side by recruiting Jennifer Salke from 20th Century Fox TV as NBC Entertainment prexy, Sony Pictures TV alum Tal Rabinowitz as head of comedy development and his former Showtime colleague Richard Licata as PR chief.

There are still more staff changes afoot in the coming weeks.

“I think part of this job is waiting until the right people become available and building the best team possible,” he said.

Greenblatt acknowledged that NBC’s new team has a hard task ahead. “It’s been a very challenging six months for us,” said Greenblatt, who took the helm of the network in late January. “It’s no secret that NBC is in fourth place. We’re working very hard and aggressively to start to turn that around.”

He outlined the much-anticipated skedding plan for midseason, as NBCU is clearly holding back some of its most promising programs for after the crunch of the fall launch period. The net has set Feb. 5-6 as the return dates for its spring sleeper reality hit “The Voice.” The spring reality hit will have a special episode following the Super Bowl, and return the following night with a two-hour installment, leading into the debut of “Smash.”

Both shows will benefit from the huge marketing platform of the Super Bowl. The goal is to give them “the best possible launch and kick it up a notch.”

Greenblatt didn’t mince words on how the change of ownership could benefit NBC given the enthusiasm that Comcast is bringing to rebuilding the network after taking managing control of NBCU through its joint venture with GE.

“I heard a lot about how things operated,” Greenblatt said. “I can’t speak for cable or the movie businesses, but in terms of broadcast, I think there was a sense it was a declining business and let’s just manage the decline and hope to get the best out of it.”

With an au courant joke, Greenblatt thanked NBCU chief exec Steve Burke in his opening remarks for raising NBC’s debt ceiling — a reference to the $200 million Comcast pumped into primetime spending earlier this year.

Among other tidbits from Greenblatt’s exec sesh:

• Greenblatt sough to clarify confusion regarding thesp Mariska Hargitay, whom he explained will appear in every episode of “Law and Order: SVU” for the coming season even as she lightens her work sked on the show’s 12th season.

• As “The Office” regroups post-Steve Carell, Greenblatt indicated that the addition of James Spader to the cast will be followed by a few more guest stars well known in comedy circles.

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