As NBC looks ahead, a few looks back

Greenblatt refreshingly blunt in assessing net's performance this season

NBC Entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt was refreshingly blunt in assessing the network’s performance this season, telling TV critics in January, “We had a really bad fall — worse than I had hoped for, but about what I expected.”

If only he’d told us before we watched “Free Agents.”

Remember all those shows the network premiered in the fourth quarter? They were really placeholders, spit and bailing wire, to hold the place together until next week, when — for NBC, anyway — the season really begins.

This Sunday’s Super Bowl provides the ultimate platform, promotionally speaking, to launch the network’s midseason salvo, which includes the musical drama “Smash” and return of last spring’s surprise singing-competition hit, “The Voice.” Yet as the network prepares to plant the seeds of a hoped-for turnaround, it’s being nagged by unwelcome reminders of just how far the old Peacock has fallen.

Perhaps that’s because NBC Entertainment — like CBS News, which must deal with people constantly dredging up memories of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite; or the Walt Disney Co., whose patriarch casts a long shadow — carries around extra baggage, which becomes especially burdensome when it’s in the ratings basement.

Watching NBC wallow in fourth place (and sometimes lower than that in the Nielsen standings when a cable channel’s having a good night) invariably elicits references to the network’s “Must-See TV” heyday — a pithy slogan that worked well at the time but, in hindsight, has become a kind of yoke upon future generations. If nothing else, it’s a favorite of newspaper editors and headline writers who haven’t watched network TV since “Seinfeld.”

As it happens, whatever NBC’s success with its Super Bowl gameplan, the network’s glory days are about to be revisited.

This spring, Doubleday will publish “Top of the Rock,” former NBC Entertainment Prez Warren Littlefield’s oral history of his tenure at the network, which carries the subtitle “Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV.”

Here’s a guess: Those rushing to check out their names will be more curious about the fall than the rise.

Last week, another former NBC topper, the late Brandon Tartikoff, was also in the news, with his widow, Lilly, donating his correspondences and effects — more than 4,000 pieces — to USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

The era of Tartikoff, Littlefield and bosses Grant Tinker and Don Ohlmeyer embodies NBC at its most dominant, full of swagger and confidence. That legacy has hung over those managing it since, who have heard a lot of adjectives about the “once-proud” Peacock, or puns like “Must-Flee TV.”

Littlefield, who saw the network go from third (when that really meant “last”) to a dominant first and begin descending again in his time, felt those pressures himself, and says they’re difficult to avoid.

“It is daunting,” he said. “We did so incredibly well in the ’80s … I always felt, ‘How will we compete with that?’ ” As for carrying around the “Must-See TV” mantle, he added, “While they buried that logo a long time ago, it is a burden to live up to that.”

The Super Bowl reflects the first genuine test of the new regime, and will doubtless trigger additional analysis — with, potentially, more unhelpful adjectives — if the strategy doesn’t yield clear benefits.

NBC would probably be wise to continue tamping down expectations, as the NFL’s big game has a spotty track record in establishing new programs. That explains why in 1996 a network took the then rather bold step of airing one of its biggest hits after the game instead: “We decided that as opposed to forcing the public to watch something they probably don’t want to watch, why don’t we let them watch something they want to watch?”

The network was NBC, the show was “Friends,” and the quote came from then-West Coast chief Ohlmeyer.

Yep, for networks hoping to engineer a recovery, history can be a real pain.