How Long Does NBC Have to Improve? And What Identity Will It Take On?

NBC is the network that everyone seems to want to succeed. It gave us Community! And the Office! And Parks and Recreation! And while I think we all recognize that it’s extraordinarily unlikely that shows like that will ever become massive hits, it would feel more just if the network reaped some good karma down the road for doing right by the medium and taking some time out to pander to the lowest common denominator. But there isn’t really karma in business, just work and product development. And the biggest question I had coming out of NBC’s sessions at the Television Critics Association press tour are how long Bob Greenblatt will be given to turn the network around.

“The good news about NBC today is that we have new owners and they’re investing in our business not only with significant financial resources but with their patience,” Greenblatt said. “They’re providing me with everything we need at NBC entertainment to go after prime time.”

The interesting question is how long that patience lasts. Todd VanDerWerff and I were chatting about this, and he pointed out that the network’s cautiousness with The Voice, which they’re running in a normal schedule instead of oversaturating in the name of a quick ratings bump, is a good sign of a long-term game plan. And only the silliest person would have trouble with the concept that it takes a long time to turn a network around, something that effectively means changing audience expectations and consuming patterns. But NBC’s transformation is part of a tricky double-act: the network’s struggle up the ratings ladder as its head of programming learns how to run a network instead of a cable channel.

Greenblatt clearly is in the midst of an adjustment between a cable mindset and a network one. “I’m done with cable. It’s a dying business,” he joked, “And ruining the culture of America.” But there’s no question that he misses cable: he talked with surprising frequency about how sorry he was Prime Suspect hadn’t done better, and said that had it been a cable show, it “would have been picked up in the third episode and declared a hit”; and said that “if I was at Showtime, you’d be calling me a genius for launching one or two good shows in a season.”


And in the short term, NBC’s new launches actually feel very much like cable’s strengths: those that are precision-cut and diamond-honed like Smash, and then inexpensive junk like Are You There, Chelsea?, and very little in between. And in between is network television’s sweet spot. Cable is all about the stuff that you just have to pay to get access to because it’s so compelling, and the stuff that you watch because it’s there and it’s all about getting your money’s worth. Network is the stuff that’s pretty solid. The Firm feels like it ought to be that sort of pretty solid show, something mid-level and pleasant without needing to be either revolutionary in its concepts or perspectives or gorgeous in its execution. But the premise for it is so silly — does Mitch ever come back to testify against the firm? Why would he and Abby ever quit their Caribbean early retirement? What is it with this dude and Evil Law Firms? — that I worry it won’t make it over the hump. A show can be cheap and effective or cheap and cheap, and it’s easier to find the latter than the former — see:Fashion Star — but important to at least seem like you’re searching for the former.

Beyond the three-tier question, there’s the problem of the network’s identity and sense of its core demographics, because nerds isn’t going to cut it (Awake’s Kyle Killen joked at his panel that a room full of critics made up most of Community’s fan base). At Showtime, Greenblatt developed a set of shows that I think could best be described as melancholy anti-heroes, more accessible and diverse than HBO and FX’s somewhat-scary mostly-white dudes. There’s definitely not a pattern that strong in the slate of programming he rolled out here in Pasadena.

And in terms of demographics, I suppose I’d suggest that between Smash, Bent, Are You There, Chelsea? and Fashion Star, they’re aiming for a less-wealthy version of Bravo’s smart lady contingency. When I followed up with Greenblatt about whether the network could rebuild by trying to lure demographics who have largely walked away from the networks back, he said that seeing more diversity in ensemble casts is “going to happen much faster than a black family or an Asian family show…If somebody brings me the great Asian family show or the great black family show, we’re developing some of that. I just think it’s more likely to see large ensembles with diversity.” Which I think is probably correct, though it remains unfortunate that the representative American family on television is still a majority-white one. If we’re going to be a majority minority nation in 2050 (aeons in entertainment-land), we’re going to need more shows like Rob about white folks learning to live with minorities, except not terrible. I’d love to see Future NBC do something like that.