As NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt met with reporters at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour, he had a lot to celebrate: NBC is leading all broadcasters this season by 17 percent among 18- to 49-year-olds and is the only broadcaster whose ratings are not down in total viewers in that demo. But Greenblatt spent much of the session defending the continued presence of Donald Trump on the network.
Greenblatt said that when NBC publicly cut business ties with Trump last summer, "Most of us thought he would be waltzing into the background of the political arena. Lo and behold, he's the front-runner," he said. "Love it or not, he's one of the most important political figures of our time, and he's on our shows."
Was getting huge ratings from the Trump-hosted Saturday Night Live in November worth the subsequent blowback to the network? "I think it was," said Greenblatt. "At the end of the day, he was on the show for 11 minutes and, as I like to say, the earth didn't fall out of its axis. It was a highly rated show, and that's always a good thing. And at the end of the day, he's the front-runner for the Republican nomination."
Added Jennifer Salke, president, NBC Entertainment, "Those shows have a responsibility to bring on relevant guests, love them or hate them."
Greenblatt was continually pressed about Trump's appearances (in addition to SNL, he has also been on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon twice) on the network that publicly denounced him last June. "If we were in the business of never having anyone guest on the network that had views that disagreed with our views, we would be out of business," said Greenblatt. "Whether we agree with him or not, he is in a very visible position in our electoral process coming up."
A successful season so far
In between addressing Trump queries, Greenblatt talked about NBC's success this season—it has won the 18-to-49 demo every week but one, when Fox aired the World Series. Even taking Sunday Night Football out of the equation, "NBC is No. 1 with entertainment programs only," which hasn't happened since 2003, when Friends was in its final season.
NBC is enjoying digital gains as well. "Digital video consumption of our content increased over 50 percent in 2015 to 6 billion views," Greenblatt said.
Greenblatt noted that the network is finally making progress in its two major problem areas of the past several years: comedy and Thursday nights.
"[Thursday] has been a very challenging night for us for the past few years. The strategy to rebuild the night with dramas has started to happen," he said. Thursday ratings were up 30 percent in the fall, and last week's premiere of Jennifer Lopez drama Shades of Blue gave NBC its biggest Thursday 10 p.m. drama launch in almost seven years.
While comedy has also been challenging for NBC, Greenblatt said he's encouraged by the successful recent debuts of Superstore and Telenovela on Monday nights, calling them "a big relief for us."
With those comedies, and the ones on his development slate for next season, including sitcoms from Tina Fey and Parks and Recreation co-creator Mike Schur, "I feel like we're really beginning to get our edge back in the comedy arena," Greenblatt said.
Late-night landscape and the state of specials
NBC has extended its relationship with Late Night host Seth Meyers, signing him to a new deal that will keep him in the role through February 2021.
Meanwhile, Fallon has remained the top draw in late night, even with all the recent changes in that landscape. NBC will air a two-hour anniversary special in prime-time on Sunday, Feb. 14. The following day, Fallon will kick off a weeklong run of Tonight Show episodes from Los Angeles.
NBC's highly rated run of holiday-themed specials in late November and December "did more than just keep the lights on when our other programming would go into repeats. I think we gave families one thing after another to sit down and watch together," Greenblatt said.
And NBC has more big specials in the works this season. On Feb. 21, the network will air an all-star tribute to legendary TV director James Burrows that will feature appearances by the cast members of many of the shows he directed, including all six stars from Friends. "I'm hoping that all six of them will be in the same room at the same time," Greenblatt said, though that hasn't been determined yet.
Live programming hits and misses
After regaining the network's live-musical mojo with Peter Pan Live last month, Greenblatt has set Hairspray as this year's live musical event in December. "That title seems really fun, and I think it will be really great live," said Greenblatt, who noted that the deals should close within the next few days.
Greenblatt noted that commercial breaks were longer on The Wiz, "because we had bigger overall corporate sponsors on the previous two musicals, which we didn't have on The Wiz." Walmart did not return as a partner this year, so NBCUniversal signed a smaller partnership deal with Reddi-wip. "We'll try to get bigger overall sponsors in the future, as we do on a lot of shows, which hopefully reduces the ad load," he said.
Not all of Greenblatt's live experiments have paid off this season. Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris won't be back next year, but Greenblatt is continuing to look for ways to make a splash with live programming.
"We just have to look at each, case-by-case," said Greenblatt, who's still interested in mounting a live drama, "not just for the sake of that, but if it is additive to the process."
NBC won't be repeating its strategy of releasing the entire season of David Duchovny drama Aquarius online, as it did last summer. "We probably won't put it out ahead of time," said Greenblatt, explaining that production of the second season won't be completed in time.