NBC's Greenblatt rebuilds network long in disarray

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Posted: Friday, January 4, 2013 9:17 am

NEW YORK (AP) -- The world didn't end as some predicted last month. Even more remarkably, NBC demonstrated it just might have a future.

No wonder Robert Greenblatt is marking two years as its boss with a new bounce in his step.

Greenblatt, the chairman of NBC Entertainment, can bask in the glow of his network's win in the November ratings sweeps. It was NBC's first such victory in the 18-to-49 demo since 2003, vaulting from fourth place to first after being largely moribund in prime time for a decade.

"This is a great thing for our morale, if nothing else," he said recently. "But I'm the first one to say there will be ups and downs for the next few years."

Notice, he said "years." Greenblatt is a guy who seems intent on logging years in a job that, until his arrival, had seen a revolving door of occupants. And he's a guy who isn't banking on any quick fix.

At the dawn of 2013, NBC is missing some of the ingredients that allowed 2012 to end so sweetly. Sunday Night Football is done for the season, while hit singing competition "The Voice" and up-and-coming freshman thriller "Revolution" are both on break until late March.

But NBC has several new shows in the wings.

When Greenblatt meets with reporters at the Television Critics Association conference in Los Angeles this weekend, he'll be touting "Deception," a soap with glamour, murder and corruption that premieres Monday. Goofy family sitcom "1600 Penn," set at the White House, debuts Jan. 10. And coming at the end of the month, "Do No Harm" is a psychological drama about a neurosurgeon waging war with his sociopathic alter ego.

Greenblatt has other shows in the pipeline. There's "Dracula," a pirate series titled "Crossbones" and "Hannibal," a prequel to the acclaimed film "Silence of the Lambs." Julian Fellowes, creator of Britain's adored "Downton Abbey," is developing "The Gilded Age," a drama set among the 1 percent in late 19th-century New York. Also in the works is a comedy that will bring Michael J. Fox back to series TV, a return most people thought his health would never allow.

All this builds on NBC's successful fall rollout, and it's quite a turnabout from TCA a year ago, when Greenblatt was acknowledging how Fall 2011 had been "really bad."

It's been a tough climb since January 2011, when he got to NBC.

"You get the feeling that it's never gonna be possible to move the needle again," he said with typical candor during a recent conversation at NBC's Manhattan headquarters. "You just keep fighting against the forces that are coming at you in a crowded environment, with more programming on more networks than in the history of our business, and you start to feel like it's never gonna be possible to do anything dramatic.

"And then you do something dramatic" - by which he means a critical mass of strategies that pays off - "and you go, `Thank God, it IS possible!'"

The battle the 52-year-old Greenblatt is waging at NBC resembles another such challenge he faced early in his career.

That was prior to his stint at Showtime, where, in charge of entertainment from 2003 to 2010, he programmed such hits as "Dexter," "Shameless," "The Borgias," "Nurse Jackie" and "Californication."

And it was before his stretch as an award-winning producer of more than a dozen series including the groundbreaking funeral-home drama "Six Feet Under," which ran on Showtime from 2001 to 2005.

Greenblatt, a smartly dressed redhead with a trim beard and mustache, had begun his career at the infant Fox network. There, from 1992 to 1997, he ran its prime-time programming.

"That was back in the days when Fox was just getting off the ground," he recalled, "and, in a world where viewers only knew three networks, we'd ask ourselves, how does a fourth network get in the door?"

The answer: "programming that viewers could not avoid, that you could not turn away from," he summed up. "We did things that nobody had done before."

Fox innovated with adult-oriented animation ("The Simpsons"), science fiction ("The X-Files"), teen drama ("Beverly Hills 90210") and edgy prime-time sketch comedy ("In Living Color").

"Suddenly viewers were coming to us, wondering `What's going on over there?!'" he said. "And that is almost exactly the mentality I have at NBC right now. NBC in recent years has been the fourth network, and here we've had to ask ourselves, `How do we get attention?'"

Greenblatt won attention for NBC a year ago with the much-ballyhooed premiere of "Smash." This musical drama set in the world of Broadway was a Greenblatt passion project whose development he had overseen while at Showtime, then brought with him to his new network.

In its first season, "Smash" won praise but also a helping of jeers and snark. Despite lavish production values and robust original songs, some viewers complained that the show was hackneyed and cartoonish.

But it was noticed, and by malcontents no less than by admirers. And with some shrewd tweaking, it returns in early February for a singing, dancing second season.

"Smash" depicts a world Greenblatt clearly loves and understands. In his spare time in 2009, he produced the Tony Award-nominated musical adaptation of "9 to 5."

"I'm a producer at heart," he said. "I get really excited about The Show" - whether it's on Broadway or, more typically, his network.

Greenblatt boils down his background this way: a gay, Catholic kid with a Jewish last name who grew up in rural Rockford, Ill. There, as a youngster, he got deeply involved in theater.

Neither acting nor directing caught his fancy. Along with playing the piano for musicals, he chose to serve as stage manager, the equivalent of producing.

"My dream as a teenager was to run a movie studio, as in the old studio system," he said.

But that Tinseltown era was long gone. Television represented the modern version of the Hollywood "dream factory" where he could produce or present the shows that got him excited.

These included shows that gave gay characters a significant presence, from "Six Feet Under," where one of the sons of the funeral-home family was a gay man (played by Michael C. Hall) in a stable same-sex relationship, to this season's NBC comedy "The New Normal," about a gay couple who arrange for a surrogate mom to bear their child.

"But there was never any conscious gay agenda," Greenblatt said. "I've just always been a proponent of having a lot of diversity in the shows I've done." Among those series he produced, he counts a Latino drama, a black drama and four black sitcoms. "I just think that's the world we live in."

Today, the world Greenblatt lives in as the boss of NBC is a complicated place. It's a media realm with multiplying platforms and once-time-honored rules in continuous flux.

So how does anyone in charge keep his footing on this changing landscape? By staying focused, Greenblatt said.

"The assignment I was given when I came here was to try and revive a broadcast network," he explained. "I'm happy if people watch our shows on mobile devices and iPads, as long as we get paid for them. The word `broadcast' can certainly expand to all those other ways of watching. But right now, the most efficient way for us to get paid for our programming is over-the-air broadcast. So that's our No. 1 goal: to try to get people to come watch on the air."

The message seems to be sinking in. NBC may be moving beyond its status as an also-ran and as a punch line (routinely mocked even by its own shows, including seven seasons of "30 Rock"). Indeed, this fall NBC was the lone Big Four network seeing year-to-year gains, while the others suffered losses.

Is NBC's revival necessarily at the expense of other networks? For Greenblatt, it's tempting to see the TV world in ecological terms, where any network on the brink of extinction is a threat to the entire biosphere, and where any growth is good for all.

"I think it's just healthy for our business," said Greenblatt, "if there's another strong network."

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