Bob Greenblatt Leads NBC Back to No. 1

Stable leadership and Comcast's deep pockets drive turnaround. But can the Peacock maintain its momentum?

Bob Greenblatt NBC Featured Image
Kurt Iswarienko

Two minutes before NBC’s May 12 upfront presentation was scheduled to start, Bob Greenblatt ducked into Jimmy Fallon’s dressing room for a quick pre-show hello.

It was an instinctive move for Greenblatt. Producers like to keep a close eye on their stars just before the curtain goes up. As the NBC Entertainment chairman chatted with Fallon, there was a brief “Where’s Bob?” moment backstage for the upfront production team. But on cue at 10:59 a.m., a smiling Greenblatt emerged from the black velvet drapes in the makeshift backstage area at New York’s Jacob K. Javits Center to hit his mark with perfect timing.

Greenblatt had good reason to be confident. NBC came to the upfront derby this year with the best ratings growth story of any major network during the 2013-14 season. Fallon has brought new sizzle to latenight, and primetime boasts a stylish new hit in “The Blacklist.” Finally, after a decade in the Nielsen basement, NBC is about to clinch its first season-long primetime win in the adults 18-49 demographic since 2004, the year “Friends” went off the air.

NBC takes the demo crown by a slim margin (even without the ratings delivered by the Winter Olympics), but a win is a win, and it has been a very long time since the network’s execs were counting down the days until the formal end of the season with anything other than grim resignation. The impact of going from worst to first, assuming it can be sustained, is tremendous, according to NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke.

“The swing is worth hundreds of millions of dollars over time,” Burke said. “CBS, ABC and Fox have made $500 million to $1 billion more than NBC (in past years) because we were in fourth place.”

In a perfect-storm situation, NBC’s ascent came at the same time that CBS, Fox and ABC have had their struggles, although CBS remains the most-watched network overall by a comfortable margin. It has been noted that NBC will win the season with an 18-49 average rating (2.8) that was good enough for only a fourth-place showing just five years ago.

But being able to chant, “We’re No. 1” for the first time since George W. Bush was in the White House has symbolic importance to NBC and to its parent company, Comcast Corp. The victory validates the new-and-improved image the network has been trying to project since the Comcast ownership era began — and the days of General Electric control ended — in January 2011. It justifies the enormous investment Comcast has made in programming and marketing for the network, including the recent $7.75 billion deal to retain Olympic rights through 2032.

“The company is named ‘NBCUniversal.’ If NBC is not doing well, the rest of the company just doesn’t feel right,” Burke said. “Whether you work in movies or in theme parks or cable, to see NBC go from fourth to third to first makes everybody feel better about the company. We’d been down so far for so long that there were people who didn’t think we’d ever get out of it.”

Greenblatt was Burke’s hand-picked choice to lead the reconstruction effort at the network. He’d done it before at Showtime, where he made the channel a serious contender for the first time in its history. Greenblatt knew he was stepping into ratings quicksand at NBC. But the degree to which the enterprise needed to be rebuilt from the standpoint of morale and corporate culture was a surprise to him.

“People were damaged and demoralized,” Greenblatt said. “There’d been a revolving door of executives. We were the butt of jokes. There was just a sense of loser-ness about NBC. It was hard to break through all that.”

The biggest change brought by the Burke regime has been to articulate a clear strategy for the network and to back the executive team tasked with carrying it out.

SEE ALSO: Team Greenblatt: Key Players in NBC’s Turnaround in Progress

From the start, Burke and his boss, Comcast chairman-CEO Brian Roberts, have said that a turnaround at NBC would require investment and patience. So far, they have delivered on both counts. “I’m not sure people at the beginning thought I was going to be here longer than other (executives) were,” Greenblatt said.

From the end of the Warren Littlefield-Don Ohlmeyer era in 1998 and 1999 until 2011, NBC’s entertainment division went through enough senior managers to field a football team: Jeff Zucker, Scott Sassa, Garth Ancier, Ted Harbert (who went to work for Comcast and is back in the Peacock tent as chairman of NBC Broadcasting), Jeff Gaspin, Marc Graboff, Kevin Reilly, Ben Silverman, Teri Weinberg, Angela Bromstad and Katherine Pope.

The most debilitating aspect of having so many execs move through short-lived jobs, according to NBC insiders, was the amount of jockeying and politicking it encouraged among other staffers. Nobody really knew who was in charge, or for how long. There was always a suspicion that the boss’ successor was being groomed somewhere on the sidelines.

After Greenblatt started the job in January 2011, it took him a full 18 months to assemble a core team, many of them Showtime alums, such as marketing chief Len Fogge. Entertainment president Jennifer Salke was recruited from 20th Century Fox TV; Universal TV exec VP Bela Bajaria came from CBS; Jeff Bader joined from ABC in mid-2012 as head of program planning strategy and research. Those execs also needed time to shape their core staff.

Paul Telegdy, president of latenight and alternative, was one of the few senior NBC execs to survive the GE-to-Comcast transition. It certainly didn’t hurt that the reality show he championed, “The Voice,” emerged as a surprise hit for NBC three months after Comcast took over.

Telegdy, an energetic Brit with competitive zeal to spare, said he knew the “cavalry” was on its way when it became clear that Burke was bringing Greenblatt to the network. The change in atmosphere with a creative exec rather than a business exec running NBC has been palpable in the halls. And there is no doubt about who is in charge.

“The cultural change here is 180-degrees different,” Telegdy said, crediting Greenblatt’s management style and development skills. “We feel valued by Comcast. This is a company that is very happy to own an entertainment company.”

After years of cuts and corporate engineering by GE, the sense of NBC now being valued by the parent company, despite the challenges ahead across the television landscape, makes a dramatic difference, execs said. And there is an undeniable sense of esprit de corps at all levels of the corporate food chain — even from those at the very top at 30 Rock and Comcast’s Philadelphia headquarters — that was hard to find in years past.

“I bumped into (Comcast chief financial officer) Michael Angelakis and Brian Roberts (at 30 Rock). The first thing Angelakis said is, ‘Hi Paul, how’s your wife, how’s your family?’ Not ‘How’s late-night, how’s “The Voice.” ’ — ‘How’s your family.’ That’s very telling.”

Roberts may be the most powerful, and to some, the most feared man in the media biz today, but he doesn’t act the part. He arrived in the green room for NBC’s upfront without an entourage. He made himself a cup of tea and then turned around to chat with Tina Fey and Ellie Kemper, on hand to promote the new comedy “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” a high priority for NBC and its studio sibling, Universal Television.

With less than an hour to go before NBC’s pitch to the people who control Madison Avenue’s purse strings, the atmosphere backstage is quietly frenetic — but not frenzied. There is a sense of purpose about those in the new NBCU regime that they “know what they want and they know what they’re doing,” according to a veteran talent rep in the room.

With Linda Yaccarino, who heads all advertising sales across NBCUniversal, already onstage rehearsing her introductory remarks to the presentation — revising a few words on the fly to strengthen her message about the formidable reach of NBCU’s channels — Fred Armisen and the 8G Band from “Late Night With Seth Meyers” assembled stage right in the dark, next to the green-and-blue plumes of a giant electrified Peacock logo.

When Yaccarino finished, Seth Meyers did a quick sound-check, and then Armisen’s band kicked in, running through spirited versions of uptempo songs including “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” and “Train in Vain.”

The youthful enthusiasm on display, even in the rehearsal, is symbolic of the new vigor in NBC’s latenight lineup — now that the network finally got the “Tonight Show” transition right on its second try. The numbers Fallon has racked up since taking the helm from Jay Leno have had a halo effect on other areas of the schedule.

“Jimmy Fallon helps the image of NBC overall,” Bader said. “We promote primetime in latenight — it’s all feeding off each other. It’s been a very nice, very welcome surprise to have exceeded our expectations so much.”

To outsiders, Greenblatt’s honeymoon period at NBC lasted about six months. He came into the job with copious good will and a sterling reputation as a talent-sympathetic creative executive. Salke brought the trust and affection of writers and creatives with whom she’d bonded over the years. The industry was rooting for NBC to right the ship after an era of neglect under GE’s tight fist.

But rooting can only last so long without a base hit or two. The first big series project Greenblatt championed, “Smash,” struck many as an unusual choice for a broadcast network in desperate need of a broad mainstream success.

The musical-within-a-musical drama, a project the exec brought with him from Showtime, was unconventional enough to invite scrutiny and snark when the series went downhill amid behind-the-scenes tensions. The rumor mill decided that Greenblatt was too much of a cable guy (in spite of his years at the Fox network before Showtime) to turn NBC around.

Although “Smash” went two seasons and out, Greenblatt has no regrets about focusing on the show at the outset. It was creatively daring, and that was the message NBC needed to send to the town at the time. “You’ve gotta go out there and jump off a cliff. I think that ‘Smash’ pilot is as good as I’ve ever seen,” Greenblatt said. “I’m proud of how ambitious that show was, and how much we pulled (it) off. My only regret was that we didn’t have a lead-in that we could let it sit behind to grow.”

By the end of the 2012-13 season, after “Smash” and other misfires, the clucking increased that Greenblatt was on thin ice. That was news to Burke, who was busy making key executive changes in other parts of NBCUniversal before extending the NBC chief’s contract last September.

“There’s been a consistent, calm, clear message from the top of the company, from Steve Burke and Brian Roberts. It’s about incremental success. You just need one a year,” Salke said. “Build it slowly. That message was always delivered. We never got that sense of fear about, ‘You guys have to make this work.’ There was no neurosis coming our way.”

Burke had no doubt Greenblatt was the right man for the job. “He’s a producer’s producer,” Burke said. “He’s very involved in the creative process on everything.”

Greenblatt’s mojo extends to Broadway, where he is a producer of the musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” which leads this year’s Tony Award nominations with 10 bids. He’s kept a low profile on the project because he didn’t want to signal that his focus was in any way moving away from NBC. (In fact, his involvement with “Gentlemen’s Guide,” as a creative and marketing adviser to producer Joey Parnes, predates his appointment at NBC.)

Greenblatt gives his lieutenants room to do their jobs. Salke put all of her energy into courting talent and developing shows as soon as she walked in the door in July 2011. Because she and Greenblatt came up the ranks as drama development executives, she was confident they would be able to deliver the hourlong goods.

“The Blacklist,” from Sony Pictures TV, was an effort to blend a procedural with an edgier cable sensibility — as ably rendered by star James Spader. The network’s hopes for growth next sesaon rely heavily on “Blacklist” remaining strong enough to move away from “The Voice” lead-in on Mondays to the tougher Thursday at 9 p.m. berth. It starts there Feb. 5 — after a post-Super Bowl push on Feb. 1.

Dick Wolf’s “Chicago Fire” and spinoff “Chicago P.D.” have been quieter success stories for the network over the past two seasons, but they should not be overlooked. “Our bench is growing, and that’s what we need,” Bader said. “ ‘Chicago Fire’ and ‘Chicago P.D.’ are as important to us as ‘The Blacklist’ in their own way because they have improved important 10 o’clock time periods.”

The execs all knew that turning around the network’s comedy fortunes would be a much tougher task, but they didn’t know how tough until Greenblatt and Salke realized the dilemma of NBC’s existing slate of critically loved but little-watched half-hours.

“We walked into a company with a comedy brand on Thursday night that wasn’t economically viable,” Salke said. “We had the funniest comedic talent in town as the architects of these shows, but the pieces weren’t adding up to what they needed to be financially.”

Salke admitted that the pendulum swing from the tonal qualities of “Community,” “Parks and Recreation” and “30 Rock” to more middle-of-the-road efforts like “Whitney,” “Up All Night,” “The Michael J. Fox Show” and “Sean Saves the World” was an “over-correction,” because audiences didn’t stick around for those shows either.

She said she is encouraged by the traction NBC and other nets appear to be getting with comedies that lean a little more into territory that can be considered heartwarming, like this year’s midseason entry “About a Boy,” starring Minnie Driver and David Walton. “We’ve gone from really broad to now softer, emotional shows that are not a laugh riot, but you feel something when you watch them,” Salke said. “ ‘About a Boy’ has a warm, chewy center.”

While NBC execs are justifiably enjoying an end-of-the-season celebration, the summer and fall will be crucial tests of whether the network can achieve a true turnaround.

To that end, NBC is focused on the need to offer “event” programming to give those who don’t normally watch much network TV a reason to find the Peacock on their program menu again. December’s telecast of “The Sound of Music Live,” watched by nearly 22 million people, was another flier for Greenblatt (“I’m sure a lot of people said, ‘There he goes again with his love of musicals,” he deadpanned) ­— one that impressed the entire industry by demonstrating TV’s power to reach across America, with the right property.

“Bob is going to prove that good television programs (on NBC) will be watched by the American public,” Telegdy said. “We have shows that are starting to matter to people again. The body politic of NBC feels dynamic again. It feels forward-looking. We are ready to embrace change; we’re not ducking and weaving.”