When NBC entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt started at the network in 2011, things looked bleak. NBC has now clawed its way back to first place in the 18-49 demographic, thanks to Sunday Night Football, The Voice and hits like The Blacklist.
But the entertainment chairman knows his network still has two big problems to fix if it wants to remain on top: addressing the network's comedy woes and restoring luster to Thursday night, which has gone from Must-See TV to Barely Seen TV.
"I think we're moving along nicely, but it's far from a done deal. We're in much better shape than we were two years ago, but we still have a lot of row to hoe," Greenblatt said at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour this week.
At the top of his list: shoring up his comedy development.
"We are really challenged by the comedy brand that we're trying to build on this network," said Greenblatt, who is going away from single-camera sitcoms (he already gave the network's single-cam Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to Netflix, to the delight of creator Tina Fey) and back to multi-cam shows, including One Big Happy, debuting March 17. "Some of the best shows on NBC in its history were multi-cams."
While the refocus on comedy will take months or years to bear fruit, NBC is taking more immediate steps to save Thursdays, which "used to be the big night of television for NBC," Greenblatt said. "It's an important night for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is it is a great, desirable night for advertising."
But the network has languished on the night with low-rated, quickly canceled comedies like The Michael J. Fox Show and this season's Bad Judge and A to Z. "Putting comedies we love there and having them fail started to feel like the definition of insanity," said entertainment president Jennifer Salke.
Instead, Greenblatt is making a bold but perilous gamble, moving his biggest scripted series, The Blacklist, to Thursdays at 9 p.m., where it will face-off against Scandal on ABC beginning Feb. 5. "It's a risky but necessary move for us to make," said Greeblatt, who pointed to other big Thursday-night shifts that seemed potentially disastrous at the time but paid off, including Fox's The Simpsons, CBS' CSI and most recently Grey's Anatomy, which laid the groundwork for ABC's TGIT.
"The only way to really reinvigorate that night is to jumpstart it with something like The Blacklist," Greenblatt said. "If you don't start that move at some point, you'll never get there."
Looking beyond those two giant holes, Greenblatt announced several projects with big-name stars. He has given a 13-episode series order to Telenovela, a Soapdish-like comedy about a diva star (played by Eva Longoria, who will also produce) that is set behind the scenes of a telenovela production. And Jennifer Lopez will star in a new drama, Shades of Blue, about a single mom and detective who is recruited to work undercover for FBI's anti-corruption task force.
NBC also has a inked deal with Dolly Parton to develop a series of TV movies based on "her songs, stories and her inspiring life," said Greenblatt, who worked with her on the 9 to 5 Broadway musical. "What we're going to try to do is create some uplifting movies that the entire family can enjoy together, which I think is a genre of programming that still seems pretty untapped on broadcast television."
One star absent from that list: Bill Cosby. Greenblatt pulled the plug on its sitcom development deal with Cosby after rape allegations exploded last November. The entertainment chairman said it's "safe to say" that NBC will never be in business with him again, noting of the canceled show, "I'm glad we're out from under that."
Greenblatt's also staying in the live musical game, even after Peter Pan Live! took a ratings hit compared to The Sound of Music Live! a year earlier. While The Music Man is still possible for December, NBC just optioned the rights for The Wiz (The Wizard of Oz re-imagined with an all-black cast), and "that could be what we do instead," said Greenblatt, who noted that a big part of The Sound of Music's ratings were due to star Carrie Underwood's fan base, and that he'll keep that in mind when casting his live musicals going forward.