NBC’s Bob Greenblatt Talks Live TV Push, Comedy Challenges and Search for Spirituality

NBC’s big bet on live entertainment programming in the coming season is an effort to bring some urgency for viewers to tune in across the week, from “The Voice” on Monday to “Undateable” on Friday.

“I’m a live junkie,” NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt said Thursday during his Q&A session at the Television Critics Assn. press tour at the Beverly Hilton.

“I think it’s one of the tools that we have available to us to try to compel the audience to watch something when we program it, which, of course, is the great challenge we all have now, because you can time-shift and watch shows whenever you want them,” he said. “Our business really depends on people watching in a certain time period. So live can be a real aid to that.”

Greenblatt has championed live special events on the network including the ambitious musical productions of “The Sound of Music” and last year’s “Peter Pan.” But NBC will deliver a volume of regular series in the live format that hasn’t been seen since the 1950s. One of the cornerstones of the Peacock’s fall launch is “Best Time Ever,” a live comedy-variety show hosted by Neil Patrick Harris to air in the Tuesday 10 p.m. slot.

“I hope that coming out of ‘The Voice’ ‘Best Time Ever” will feel like another live event for us every week,” Greenblatt said. “It will feel like another night of television that is immediate, exciting, unpredictable and just fun.”

The multicamera comedy “Undateable” is gamely undertaking a full 22-episodes season’s worth of live episodes, after experimenting with one live broadcast last season. NBC had been attempting to develop a new live comedy but when the “Undateable” live episode aired in April, it was clear the stars of the buddy guy comedy had the chops to pull it off on a regular basis.

“Undateable” will air live on the East Coast, rather than stage two productions for each coast as the show did in April. “It’s not the easiest thing to pull off,” Greenblatt said, crediting exec producer Bill Lawrence, “one of the great comedy producers of all time.”

Greenblatt said he would even like to do a live weekly drama series if the right concept can be found. The network is still developing a one-off live staging of Aaron Sorkin’s play “A Few Good Men,” he confirmed.

Greenblatt opened the session by announcing orders for two high-profile comedy projects, one from “Parks and Recreation” creator Michael Schur and one from the “30 Rock” trio of Tina Fey, Robert Carlock and Tracey Wigfield. He acknowledged that establishing a next-generation NBC comedy remains a big priority and big challenge. The fall launch features only two comedies on Friday night, “Undateable” and freshman entry “Truth Be Told.”

Jennifer Salke, NBC Entertainment president, said “Truth Be Told” is going to brig some sizzle to its storylines. The show revolves around a multicultural group of friends who take on taboo topics. It’s from red-hot producer Will Packer and writer DJ Nash.

“They know that we need to try to get attention to these shows and they want to be authentic and speak to the audience,” Salke said. “I think they’re interested in doing something provocative and that breaks out … It’s just a feeling of wanting to be more authentic, speak to the audience in a more truthful way, and break out of the clutter.”

The execs were asked whether they had any regrets after passing “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” on to Netflix after it was originally ordered for NBC. The show scored a host of Emmy nominations including a bid for best comedy.

Greenblatt was quick to acknowledge that “we’re whores for Emmy nominations,” he said the Netflix shift for “Kimmy” was the very likely the best move for the show. It’s produced by Universal Television, which means that the show’s success on Netflix is still a win for NBCUniversal, he said.

“It’s now a big piece of business for Universal Television,” Greenblatt said. “We wanted to put that show in the situation where it had the best chance of success. We thought the Netflix move was going to be that.”

NBC’s interest in family-friendly and faith-based programming remains strong despite the cancellation of “A.D. The Bible Continues” after a single season. The network is working with “A.D.” exec producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey and writer John Glenn on a drama project that would be infused with spiritual themes. And that’s one of several development prospects. “Our attention is on that area,” Greenblatt said.

NBC’s deal with Dolly Parton for a series of telepics inspired by her songs is an effort to deliver high-wattage programming for a family audience. The first installment, “Coat of Many Colors,” is “very faith-based,” Greenblatt said, noting that one of the central characters, her grandfather, is a preacher.

On another big TV development trend, Greenblatt said the mania for reboots and revivals of older shows has big potential but also is in danger of being overdone. “We have to be measured about how much we look to the past,” he said.

NBC is going back to the vault in the upcoming season for “Heroes Reborn” and the “Coach” sequel. For both shows, “it was a case of creators coming to us with a vision for where it goes versus us coming to them (asking) to reboot an old title,” Salke said.

In a sea of hundreds of shows the opportunity to present a property that already has some audience awareness is hard to resist, Greenblatt added. “Coach” creator Barry Kemp’s pitch for a series that would pick up 20 years after the original ABC series left off, with star Craig T. Nelson on board. “It’s a variation on another way to do a family show with a truly talented star and a great showrunner and a pre-sold title,” Greenblatt said. “If that works ‘Alf’ the series is next,” he joked.

Greenblatt was pressed on the decision to renew the David Duchovny starrer “Aquarius” despite low ratings. NBC experienced with the summer series by making all 13 episodes available online for binge viewing shortly after the series premiered in May. NBC’s research found that 94% of the viewing still came via linear broadcasts. The 6% who did watch online had a median age of 35, much younger than the median age for broadcast viewing.

“The fact that we were able to get a new sample of viewers that are younger, that probably would never watch it on linear — we look at that as a positive. And we’re the most traditional kind of network and we’re always looking for ways that we can become less traditional and sort of appeal to the viewer in a less traditional way,” Greenblatt said.

NBC drew the short straw this year in having its TCA presentation fall on the last day of the 17-day tour. Greenblatt  opened his session by offering his 60-second take on the state of the industry: “Too many shows, not enough monetization, fractured audience, Netflix doesn’t report ratings, what did Nielsen do this time and how do we find the next great comedy.”

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