What does Bob Greenblatt want most? A hit comedy.
The NBC Entertainment chairman is looking at the prospect of starting next season with an entirely new comedy slate if none of this season’s remaining shows — “Marry Me,” “About a Boy,” “Undateable” and the upcoming “One Big Happy” — manage to earn renewals. “Parks and Recreation,” NBC’s most established comedy, wraps its seven-season run on Jan. 29.
The environment for NBC comedy launches is so challenged that the Peacock was receptive to the offer from Netflix to buy up the latest Tina Fey-Robert Carlock series, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Greenblatt acknowledged Friday during NBC’s portion of the Television Critics Assn. press tour.
“We didn’t want to put it on in a situation where we couldn’t really launch it,” Greenblatt said, noting that the show had something of an “edgy setup” by the standards of network TV comedy. (The show stars Ellie Kemper as a woman who escapes a cult and moves to New York City.) “Netflix said ‘We’ll do this in a big way’ and it just sort of made sense.”
The decision to let “Unbreakable” go to Netflix is a testament to Fey’s clout at NBCUniversal as well as the fact that it hails from Universal Television, which has been expanding its efforts to produce for non-NBC networks. The Netflix offer was deemed a smarter decision for the studio — giving the show a better chance to work and become a valuable asset for Universal TV, which Greenblatt also oversees.
NBC’s comedy predicament can also be seen in the re-engineering of Thursday night as an all-drama block that starts Feb. 5 when “The Blacklist” relocates from its Monday berth. The shift was spurred by necessity as NBC’s comedy launches on the night have been perpetually torpedoed by the strength ABC and CBS on the night.
“Thursday has been a problem for us the past few years,” Greenblatt said during his exec Q&A session with NBC Entertainment Jennifer Salke. “The only way to re-invigorate the night is to jumpstart it with something like ‘The Blacklist.’ “
Greenblatt gave a nod to ABC for its success in turning Thursday into must-see TV with its block of Shondaland dramas. Salke said they had no choice but to cut bait with comedies on Thursday, even with its legacy as a comedy night for NBC, because shows they felt had promise had virtually no shot of breaking out.
“Putting comedies that we loved there and having them fail started to feel like the definition of insanity,” Salke said. And Greenblatt conceded that they have yet to crack the code for what defines a modern NBC comedy.
“We are really challenged by the comedy brand we’re trying to build on this network,” Greenblatt said. “It’s been a couple of years of trial and error on a number of fronts.”
That R&D continues this year with another big push to harvest some multi-camera comedies. “We’re really trying to attack it from all levels,” Salke, noting that her greenlight mantra is “quality, vision, funny.” “We need to get some luck and good scheduling,” she said.
Greenblatt and Salke had kind words for Jason Katims-produced “About a Boy,” which will be pulled later this winter but is expected to come back to the schedule. It remains a contender for renewal, both execs said. Supporting the multi-camera “Undateable,” which bows its second season on March 17, is also a priority in the hopes it will be a lead-in for a new multicamera effort.
The Thursday move of “Blacklist” is not without risk, but the show’s popularity and the fact that so much of its viewing is done on a delayed basis gives them confidence that the audience will follow James Spader and Co. to a new night. The show’s new slot will get a big promo boost, of course, when it airs a special seg Feb. 1 in the post-Super Bowl slot.
“It’s a risky but necessary move for us to make,” Greenblatt said.
Drama programming has plenty of its own challenges. Greenblatt and Salke talked at length about the balancing act of doing highly serialized shows versus procedurals that tend to run longer in success. NBC like other networks is fielding several limited series designed to be a thrill ride contained with eight or 10 or 12 episodes. Upcoming conspiracy dramas “Allegiance” and “Odyssey” are in that vein, so is the sword-and-sandal epic “A.D” and family-intrigue vehicle “The Slap.”
“There’s a way to have your cake and eat it too,” Salke said. “It’s just about the balance of shots that we would talk. We look for close-ended shows along the lines of ‘Blacklist’ to deliver on all those points. And then we fall in love with material like ‘The Slap.’ “
The most endangered species in TV these days is the family or slice of life drama that doesn’t have a murder mystery, conspiracy thriller or franchise-style plot engine. NBC is about to bid farewell to the last of that breed on network TV, “Parenthood,” on Jan. 29.
“It’s never gotten the audience it deserved,” Greenblatt said of “Parenthood.” So is there anything in that vein on the boards for NBC in the future? Greenblatt and Salke admitted it’s a long shot.
“My knee-jerk answer is that you can still do it if you have the best writing, the best auspices, the best cast. But we have that (with ‘Parenthood’). If something comes along that we love, we’ll try it. But it does seem like it gets harder and harder.”