How Robert Greenblatt Took NBC From Worst to First

Adweek’s TV Executive of the Year rebuilt his lineup piece by piece

Next season already looks promising for NBC, Robert Greenblatt says.
Art Streiber/NBC

When he arrived at NBC in early 2011, Robert Greenblatt knew he was inheriting a fourth-place network in dire straits. But the former Showtime president wasn’t fully prepared for what awaited him. “It was worse than I thought it was going to be—and I expected it to be bad,” recalls Greenblatt, noting that “all the great shows had come and gone” and “we had no digital or social presence whatsoever.” Still, he was undaunted by the task ahead of him: “I really wanted the job, because I love that kind of challenge.”

Challenge accepted—and mission accomplished. Over the next three years, Greenblatt–Adweek’s TV Executive of the Year in our annual Hot List–turned around the network from worst in the adults 18-49 demo to first by overhauling every division and methodically rebuilding the lineup, piece by piece: nurturing new hit The Voice (“if The Voice hadn’t happened, I don’t know if I would have ever come out of my own tailspin,” he admits); turning Dick Wolf’s Chicago Fire into a four-series franchise; restoring some of the luster to Thursday nights with The Blacklist; establishing a popular annual tradition of live musicals; launching a family hit with Little Big Shots; and helping the network rediscover its comedy identity with Superstore and The Good Place.

This season, NBC reclaimed the 18-49 lead under his watch thanks to a mix of new and resurgent hits, led by freshman sensation This Is Us, which is Adweek’s Hot List winner for both Show of the Year and Drama of the Year.

“People run around our business saying, ‘Broadcast is dead,’ but then you have 15 million viewers for This Is Us, 15 million viewers for America’s Got Talent and 10 to 12 million viewers for The Voice,” says Greenblatt. “This is a pretty robust business after all!”

Especially now that the network is thriving year-round. Thanks to America’s Got Talent, “we’ve won the summer for six years in a row, and I can’t imagine we’re not going to win it again this year,” he says. “We never let up. We’re really good at managing month to month and year to year.”

Greenblatt made other key moves this past year, leveraging Saturday Night Live’s Trump-fueled buzz this season—its most watched in 23 years—by airing its final four episodes live across all time zones, for the first time ever. In the wake of instantly viral sketches like Melissa McCarthy’s surprise cameos as White House press secretary Sean Spicer, “I kept thinking, why should we make the West Coast wait?” says Greenblatt, who approached SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels with the idea. “We don’t have anything on at 8:30 on Saturday that is so important that we couldn’t blow it out and just do it. People love it.”

NBC also had an unscripted hit with new game show The Wall, sticking with the title even as it took on an unexpected political connotation during Trump’s presidential campaign. “The Wall is really aspirational and positive, so it didn’t feel like the title was going to be a liability,” he says.

He wasn’t so lucky with The New Celebrity Apprentice, a brand that couldn’t escape its association with Donald Trump even with Arnold Schwarzenegger stepping in as the new host. “He did a great job and it’s a great franchise, yet there is a lot of baggage that comes with it,” says Greenblatt. “We shot the show well before the election, so nobody really predicted what the situation would be.”

"We never let up. We’re really good at managing month to month and year to year."
-Robert Greenblatt

Next season already looks promising, with a 12-episode revival of the network’s hit sitcom Will & Grace. “I’m hoping that this is just the first season of more seasons of Will & Grace,” Greenblatt says. “but I don’t want to put the cart before the horse yet.” And with both the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics locked in for February, “next season is kind of in the bag, I hate to say, given the heft of the sporting events,” says Greenblatt. But that doesn’t mean he’s taking it easy. “You don’t want to squander those things, and those are launchpads for other shows,” he says. “So that adds a bit of a challenge.”

Speaking with Adweek as he was finishing up the 2017-18 lineup he would be presenting to buyers on Monday at the NBCUniversal upfront, Greenblatt says he is applying the lessons he learned from This Is Us’ massive success. “Everything’s going to have an emotional quality to it, whether they’re reality shows or unscripted,” he says. “Every show obviously won’t be a cookie cutter of This Is Us, but we do know that the feeling you get watching that show is really compelling to people, and they’re rabid about it. We’re trying to find many different ways to do that.”

Check out the rest of this year’s Hot List honorees:

This story first appeared in the May 15, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.