Can NBC Create Another Real-Time Sensation With Peter Pan Live?

Robert Greenblatt on what he learned from his Sound of Music gamble

As NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt went to bed last Dec. 5, after watching his network pull off The Sound of Music Live!, he had no idea what the 18-49 ratings would look like the next morning—but he was preparing for the worst. "I was thinking, 'I'm praying for a 2 rating, because I could defend a 2,'" he told Adweek. "And then I thought, 'Oh God, I could probably spin a 1.7 or 1.8 to probably being almost a 2.' I really was hoping it would be a 2.'"

Instead, Greenblatt awoke the next morning to massive numbers that didn't need spinning. Instead, the special, which starred Carrie Underwood as Maria von Trapp, earned a 4.6 (with 18.5 million total viewers), a number that jumped to 5.6 in live-plus-seven. The rating, which almost tripled Greenblatt's modest hopes, was NBC's best non-sports Thursday night in the 18-49 demo since the ER series finale aired on April 2, 2009.

A year later, he's at it again, with Peter Pan Live!—featuring Allison Williams as Peter Pan and Christopher Walken as Captain Hook—airing Thursday, Dec. 4. He's also developing other live events for the network, including The Music Man in 2015; a Sean Hayes-produced sitcom, Hospitality, that would air live every week; and a live staging of Aaron Sorkin's play A Few Good Men.

Greenblatt spoke with Adweek about last year's big Sound of Music gamble, why it ended up being so successful, his other plans for live TV and which musicals he is—and isn't—considering putting on the air going forward.

Adweek: How tough of a sell was The Sound of Music Live! to your bosses last year?

Greenblatt: I report to [NBCUniversal CEO] Steve Burke, who is the most supportive boss I've ever had. I think one day I told him, "We're going to try this big, live, musical event for the holiday," and he went, "Great." He did unconditionally support it, but left it to us to figure out how much it was going to cost. At one point, I think I said to him, "I have no idea if this is going to sink or swim. It could be a disaster, and it's not inexpensive. So we could be looking at a big, financial miss." And he goes, "That's OK. Let's see what we get." We marshaled everybody in the company to promote it, and we did everything we could think of to make it a big event, and lo and behold—it over delivered!

NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt | Photo: Getty Images

When did you first get an inkling of how big it would be?

The morning of the ratings. I heard a lot of buzz from people that week leading up to it. And you're in the holiday spirit. We did a number at the [Macy's Thanksgiving Day] Parade. We had the tree-lighting special the night before, which Audra McDonald sang "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" on, and I began to hear a lot of chatter. People were saying to me, "I can't wait to see this tonight," and, "I'm going home early, we're going to watch it with the kids." But you don't know if you're living in a bubble and you're just hearing it from people who are going to tell you that because you're doing it.

So you went to bed praying for a 2. What happened the next morning?

I was in New York for the broadcast the night before, and you get the ratings at 7:30 [a.m.], the first 25-30 metered markets. Alan Wurtzel, who is the professor of all things ratings [as president of research and media development for NBCUniversal], gets them a little bit earlier, and he emailed me at about 7:20 and said, "It's early, and we only have 25 markets of 200, but I think there's a 4 in front of this rating." And I said, "A 4? That's not possible. It can't be a 4. Four is an anomaly in these 25 markets, and it's going to go down." I rationalized everything I could to think that that's unbelievable. And then at 7:35 or 7:40, the official number came out of the overnight markets, and it was like a 4.2. Then three hours later, we get the fast nationals, which is most of the rest of the country and is a pretty good gauge about what it's going to be. Right before that, which is about 11 [a.m.], he emailed me and said, "I think it's a 4.6 or a 4.7!" Which just means that the more you add of the smaller markets, people were watching. And it ended up being a 4.6, and almost 19 million total viewers.

Why did the show resonate with such a huge audience?