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The New NBC Chief’s Five Make-or-Break Decisions in Turning the Network Around

Bob Greenblatt.

Today, NBC Universal employees in New York, L.A., and Miami gathered for a companywide pep rally marking the end of GE’s control of the Peacock and the official takeover by new owners Kabletown Sabre Comcast. One of the key execs in the new, less Peacocky company: Bob Greenblatt, the former Showtime chief who’s been tasked with day-to-day control of the new unit’s most troubled asset, the NBC broadcast network. Unlike some certain previous tiger-fetishing occupants of the position, Greenblatt is somebody who’s nearly universally beloved and respected around Hollywood; he gets most of the credit for transforming Showtime from a depository for movies you’d already seen on DVD into an original-programming powerhouse. (Of course, he also produced The Hughleys, so nobody’s perfect.) But while Greenblatt’s got plenty of folks rooting for him, he also got the unenviable — and some would argue impossible — task of restoring the once-proud Peacock’s luster and reviving its moribund ratings. Because We Like Bob, too, Vulture has identified five key decisions he’ll have to make early in his tenure, laid out various options for dealing with them, and offered our best advice for what he should do. Good luck!

Broaden out NBC’s comedy brand or double down on the smart-humor niche?
Under Jeff Zucker, NBC had a split personality when it came to comedy: It supported awesome shows such as 30 Rock and Community and yet it also always seemed unhappy that they weren’t bigger hits (Parks and Recreation was benched this fall because Zucker wanted to “swing for the fences” with the allegedly more broadly appealing Outsourced). Some industry observers think Greenblatt has no choice but to continue Zucker’s mandate of broadening out the Peacock comedy portfolio: “He needs to have sitcoms that are really funny, and not just little character studies,” one top TV agent tells Vulture. But there’s also a school of thought that says Greenblatt would be wise to simply embrace NBC’s rep as the home of the smartest half-hours on broadcast TV by better promoting current shows while ordering up even more shows with quirky characters and subtle humor. Based on the comedies Greenblatt has ordered prototypes of so far, it seems like he’s trying to cover all his bases.

Vulture Recommends: We’re gonna wimp out and suggest doing both. Beef up and accept that Thursday is home to quality comedies, but build out a whole new lineup of more populist fare on another night (we’re thinking Tuesdays).

Do you keep the old programming execs, or clean house?
One of the biggest reasons the Peacock has flailed in the past five years has been that, no matter how often the top exec changed (Ben Silverman, Jeff Gaspin), the network’s day-to-day development and current programming teams continued to be staffed by the same small group of folks. Greenblatt needs to figure out whether said team has been as much the problem as the coaches.

There are some talented folks in NBC’s development ranks. Comedy chief Jeff Ingold, for example, is beloved by many around Hollywood for helping to nurture some of the best half-hours on TV (Parks and Recreation, Community). And Greenblatt has shown an inclination against throwing out the baby with the bathwater, having kept much of the key team below him in place when he arrived at Showtime. But there’s a strong case to be made for a total housecleaning at the Peacock: There’s been so much drama, so much failure, and so much political infighting there in the recent years, some believe the only way NBC can truly move forward is with a massive restructuring and a new team that’s loyal to Greenblatt. The departure of NBC Entertainment boss Angela Bromstad last week after two years — and persistent rumors that well-respected 20th Century Fox TV exec Jennifer Nicholson-Salke (who helped develop Glee and Modern Family) will jump to NBC by the summer — indicates Greenblatt is leaning toward an extreme makeover.

Vulture Recommends: A total transformation of the development and programming ranks. Sign talented execs such as Ingold to production deals.

Make a choice between betting on star power or breeding new talent.
Networks at their lowest often look to big names to help bail them out. When Leslie Moonves took over CBS back in the nineties, he paid top dollar to woo Bill Cosby back to TV for The Cosby Mysteries Cosby. Greenblatt will be tempted to do deals with big names — like just-announced projects from Steven Spielberg and Stephen Gaghan — because they make great press releases and because they’re theoretically less risky: If Spielberg’s idea bombs, nobody’s going to say, “Wow, whose dumb idea was it doing a show with that dude?” There’s also something less ass-covering to be said for working with show-runners with proven track records: Greenlight something from Greg Daniels or David E. Kelley, and you known you’ll have a hardworking, determined producer on the job 24/7 until he gets things right.

And yet, many of the biggest breakthrough shows of the past decade have been produced by or starred folks who were anything but household names. While Cosby brought some stability to CBS, the shows that ended up transforming the Eye and made Moonves so envied — Everybody Loves Raymond, CSI, and Survivor — all came from largely unknown (at the time) show-runners, and featured mostly unknown actors. And look no further than the casts of House, Glee, and — save for Ed O’Neill — Modern Family as proof that TV makes stars, and not the other way around. Comcast is not known for its free-spending ways, which means Greenblatt will have to quickly decide whether to spend limited resources on a few big names, or spread the same amount of money taking chances on fresher voices.

Vulture Recommends: Focus on finding new talent eager to make its mark on the medium; if something interesting comes along that has a big name attached, great, but don’t make the marquee value the selling point.

Figure out the best way to compete in the reality-TV arena.
Unscripted series used to be considered filler by broadcasters; now, a hit reality show is almost a prerequisite for any network that wants to compete in the ratings race. American Idol and Dancing With the Stars are the biggest shows on Fox and ABC; CBS’s trio of Survivor, The Amazing Race, and Undercover Boss have become essential in keeping CBS a player with young-adult audiences. NBC used to have big reality guns: The Apprentice and The Biggest Loser were out-of-the-box hits that seemed destined for long runs. But Zucker got greedy and supersized both shows with spinoff editions and two-hour episodes, basically killing Apprentice and seriously weakening Loser. Greenblatt has no track record with unscripted series, but making sure NBC finds a reality hit could be key to his success at turning the network around.

Current unscripted chief Paul Telegdy has demonstrated a knack for finding some interesting shows with cult appeal, such as The Sing-Off and Who Do You Think You Are?. But he’s also green-lit derivative drivel such as Minute to Win It and the upcoming American Idol ripoff The Voice of America. Greenblatt needs to quickly decide whether to stick by Telegdy and, if so, figure out a way to make reality shows that fit with NBC’s upscale brand.

Vulture Recommends: Stick with Telegdy, but focus his department’s energies on finding one or two game-changing reality ideas. Specifically, we’d argue against thinking concepts need to be “big”: Why not follow the lead of NBC U cousin Bravo and develop more upscale reality with the smarts of such shows as Top Chef and Work of Art? A concept like Undercover Boss probably sounded like it belonged on a smaller cable network, but put it on a network as big as CBS and it’s suddenly a major hit.

Decide what to do with the Law & Order franchise.
Zucker already made the tough calls by euthanizing the original series last spring and shipping off Criminal Intent to USA. But there are other issues: SVU, for instance, needs a new show-runner to replace the underrated (and exiting) Neal Baer, who’s been more responsible for the success of L&O than anyone else not named Dick Wolf. Greenblatt needs to decide whether to pick an L&O veteran for the task or go outside Team Dick and find a show-runner to reboot the show.

Then there’s the mess that is Law & Order: Los Angeles: The show’s parting ways with Skeet Ulrich, but his exit won’t be enough to get anyone excited about LOLA. Some would say NBC has so few drama success stories that Greenblatt has no choice but to give LOLA time to right itself and find an audience. Yet there’s also a case to be made for simply limiting the damage and devoting the resources needed to produce LOLA on a new, unproven concept, or on a current smaller show that still needs time to grow. “A series like Parenthood fits Greenblatt’s vision more than something from Dick Wolf,” a TV veteran says.

Vulture Recommends: For SVU, stick with a Wolfpack person; it’s hard to imagine a series so old (Season 12!) suddenly transforming itself into a buzz magnet, barring an unlikely Darren Aronofsky–type hire. As for LOLA, we say: Accept failure and move on.

The New NBC Chief’s Five Make-or-Break Decisions in Turning the Network Around