Q&A: NBC’s Bob Greenblatt on Faith-Based Dramas, ‘Blacklist’ Move, Multicam Comedy Focus

The mood has been a little dark on NBC this season, but things are about to lighten up. So says Bob Greenblatt, NBC Entertainment chairman, in assessing the network’s performance as the 2014-15 season heads into its final quarter.

The Peacock has had little ratings luck with its new scripted series so far this season. The five dramas launched to date — “State of Affairs,” “The Mysteries of Laura,” “Constantine,” “Allegiance” and “The Slap” — have delivered lackluster numbers and are long shots for renewal.

Greenblatt acknowledges that NBC’s focus on dense, darker conspiracy thrillers such as “State of Affairs,” “Allegiance,” and the upcoming “Odyssey” has been out of step with the kind of material that viewers appear to be looking for in network dramas. That’s been a big handicap, especially as NBC has banked on an all-drama makeover of its Thursday lineup with the relocation of “The Blacklist” to the 9 p.m. slot as of Feb. 5.

He cites the success of Fox’s “Empire” and ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder” as evidence that audiences are flocking to lighter material and shows with wilder, social media-buzzworthy storytelling techniques. Those qualities are definitely influencing the network’s development for the coming season.

“We’re seeing that there’s a desire from audiences to be entertained with some form of escapism. They’re looking for brighter shows that are just fun to watch,” Greenblatt told Variety. “We may have erred in shows that are darker and more deeply dramatic concepts when maybe the audience is looking for more escapism and fantasy.”

Greenblatt has high hopes for the Easter Sunday launch of “A.D. The Bible Continues,” which is infused with spiritual themes and an underlying message of hope. Certainly, NBC is praying it will be boosted by a strong turnout for the series among the faith-based demo that connects with producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.

In fact, NBC is heightening its focus on family-friendly and faith-themed programming, so much so that it is in the process of recruiting a development executive to work specifically on such material with NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke. NBC’s recent deal to develop a series of telepics based on Dolly Parton tunes is part of that initiative.

“I think that’s an audience that is very under-served. There are things we can do in this area of family and spirituality that we can really get some attention with,” he said.

In a wide-ranging Q&A, Greenblatt discussed the possibility of more changes on Thursday night, the marketing of “A.D.,” a renewed interest in fielding multi-camera sitcoms and other big swings in development.

Variety: The Thursday drama lineup has been an uphill climb so far. Will you make any changes on the night?

Greenblatt: We’re still in the early days of the move of “Blacklist.” We’ve significantly improved things on Thursday at 9 p.m. While “Blacklist” has taken a bit of a hit, we’re heartened by what we’re seeing in the 3- and 7-day delayed viewing numbers. There’s work to be done at 8 and 10. I’m very happy with the critical acclaim and the quality of “The Slap.” I’m not going to regret doing something that is really high quality, but I am disappointed in the rating not being higher. It’s a more contemplative kind of show than some of the things getting a bigger audience. “Allegiance” is another show we’re inordinately proud of. We’re going to look at all of this without making knee-jerk reactions. But we won’t be foolish. If we don’t think we’re getting the right results in the next couple of weeks, we’ll make changes.

Would you consider moving “Blacklist” back to Monday?

Greenblatt: We’re going to be very focused on Thursday in the next few weeks. It’s not inconceivable that we’d make changes on a bigger level with “Blacklist” if we felt like it was really engaged. But we want to be thoughtful, not over-reactive.

Regarding your dramas, do you think it was a case of conspiracy overload — not just on NBC but with the prevalence of such shows in general?

Greenblatt: I think “The Blacklist” works because at the center is a larger-than-life character and a relationship that is really fun to watch. We may not have found that chemistry in some of these other shows. We spend a lot of time thinking about that sort of thing … I think creatively our shows have been really good, but we need to somehow put them across to the audience is a bigger way. I think we have a real shot with “A.D.” and “Odyssey.” “A.D” is heavy and dramatic, but I think it will tap into something that’s missing out there in that it speaks directly to issues of religion, faith and spirituality.

Have you done much outreach to faith communities on “A.D.”?

Greenblatt: That is an area of expertise that Mark Burnett and Roma Downey have — they refined it on “The Bible.” They know that audience and know how to speak to them. We sent many significant pastors and church leaders to the set in Morocco, and they have advised him along the way. But I don’t think that’s the only (marketing) strategy that will yield results. I don’t want to make the mistake of just speaking to that audience. We’re moving past the New Testament. We’re telling stories that go further afield from the Bible and into the history of Rome. I think there’s a parallel audience that will see this as a big epic dramatic thriller …  We’ve already started to develop the next chapter of “A.D.” beyond this one. Mark and Roma presented us with a whole approach to what’s the next chapter as history continues.

At this stage of pilot season, do you have an idea of the volume of dramas you’ll order for next season?

Greenblatt: We’re going to need a fair amount of volume, given that we haven’t had many things stick.

Given what you’re learned this season about audience tastes, what are you focusing on in development?

Greenblatt: We’re doing a pilot with Mark and Roma about angels — it’s very much infused with spirituality and faith and people seeking a higher purpose. That’s something we’re going to explore in a lot of ways in this coming season. I think the audience is really wanting escapism and fantasy. We’re going for that in (pilots such as) “Endgame” and “Warrior.” We have a one-hour comedy from Silvio Horta, “Curse of the Fuentes Women,” that is set in Miami and has magical realism and a very romantic quality to it.

Comedies have also been hard for you this season. What’s it going to take to break a new hit? You have one more launch before the end of the season, “One Big Happy.”

Greenblatt: Comedy has been a difficult road for us. We’re really looking to do more multi-camera shows, we’re looking for brighter, funnier and bigger shows that are fun and escapist. We’re excited about the return of “Undateable” and the premiere of “One Big Happy.” We also have (Craig Robinson’s) “Mr. Robinson” ready, which will probably be for summer. I think the audience is there for these kind of shows.

What about your comedy pilots?

Greenblatt: Comedy-wise we’re taking a few bigger swings in the fall. We’ve got a sci-fi horror comedy in “Strange Calls.” We’ve got Eva Longoria in a backstage comedy, “Telenovela,” trying to tap into the Latino world. “Problem Child” is big and broad, and it’s really funny. We’re excited about a format that we’ve got, “Cuckoo,” based on the show Andy Samberg did for the BBC.

NBC and other broadcast networks are deep in the business of limited series like “The Slap” and “A.D.” How does that change the way you develop overall?

Greenblatt: It’s challenging. We’re already in a high-volume world, and now it’s even higher with shows that don’t go 22 episodes all the time. The shorter (episode) runs are increasing overall volume in general. We’re all just making more shows. We’re just starting production on Jennifer Lopez’s “Shades of Blue” in June for next year. But I don’t think there’s any way around it. There’s hundreds of dramas out there and a shortage of great writers and great ideas. It’s hard to find ideas that sustain 22 episodes year after year. God bless Dick Wolf, who seems to be one of the few producers out there who wants to do 22 episodes of his shows, and he does them at exceedingly high quality. My hat’s off to him.

How do you feel about the chances for “Chicago Med” to land on the schedule next season? How does the planted spinoff episode look?

Greenblatt: There’s something potentially very positive there. We’re using (“Chicago Fire” and “P.D.”) as an experimental ground to see if there’s another another version of a Chicago show. There might very well be. We could schedule them all together on a night or at 10 p.m. on successive nights.

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