the industry

What Does NBC Have Riding on the Success of Smash?

SMASH -- Pilot -- Pictured: Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright -- Photo by: Will Hart/NBC
Katharine McPhee in Smash. Photo: Will Hart/NBCUniversal, Inc.

You’ve heard of Smash, right? That new NBC musical drama premiering Monday at 10 p.m.? Well, of course you have: Since the first on-air promo debuted November 6, the Peacock has been pounding Smash into our collective consciousness by every means possible. Featurettes showcasing Katharine McPhee’s rendition of “Beautiful” have been been part of the preshow reel on thousands of movie screens for weeks now. McPhee and co-star Megan Hilty crooned carols at the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, while Debra Messing handed out an award at the Golden Globes. To build word of mouth, the pilot episode has been streaming online, on-demand, and in airplanes weeks ahead of its official debut. And then there are the billboards, bus advertisements, and, in selected areas, NBC execs tackling people and begging them to watch it. Big promo pushes are nothing new for NBC (remember the endless drumbeat in advance of The (Non-) Event?). But the launch of Smash has taken on a special urgency. For one thing, it’s the first serious attempt by new NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, on the job barely a year now, to reverse nearly a decade of decline at the Peacock. It’s also coming at a time when NBC seems perilously close to shifting from merely uncompetitive to nearly irrelevant on many nights of the week. To wit: Late last month, Peacock brass woke up to an embarrassing post on industry bulletin board reporting that in the 10 p.m. Thursday slot — where not that long ago ER drew over 40 million viewers —NBC had finished in eighth place, behind everything from Jersey Shore and the Univision telenovela Rosa De Guadalupe to a repeat of The Big Bang Theory on cable’s TBS. “There’s a lot of racing hearts and held breaths over there right now,” says one TV industry insider who deals regularly with NBC suits. “If it doesn’t perform the way they need it to, there’s going to be real concern about how they’re ever going to turn things around.” But just how important is the success or failure of Smash to the gasping network? Let’s break down the potential aftershocks for the Peacock of three different ratings outcomes.

It’s … a smash!
As down in the dumps as NBC is, this outcome is not outside the realm of possibility. After all, it was just last spring that the Peacock drew very big numbers for the opening of its reality competition The Voice, despite the conventional wisdom that viewers were satisfied with American Idol and didn’t need an alternative. If Smash, which will air after The Voice on Mondays, can take advantage of its lead-in and Super Bowl hype to become a clear hit, “It would be huge,” says a partner in a top Hollywood talent agency. “It will give them what they need most, which is building blocks to grow other hits.” Once a show secures a big audience, networks can use it as a strong lead-in for another new or struggling show. If Smash is big enough, it’s not hard to see NBC shifting it to another night of the week, where it could play at 9 p.m. and serve as the lead-in for a compatible drama. This piece-by-piece strategy is how networks lift themselves out of the gutter: Consider how the supernova success of Modern Family enabled ABC to construct an entire Wednesday of comedy hits, or how the smart scheduling of New Girl behind Glee provided a launching pad for the Zooey Deschanel comedy. Plus, there’s the ripple effect: If you’re watching a hit show every week on a network, you’re much more likely to catch promos for other series on that network (even in the DVR era, data suggests people still see a good chunk of such advertising). A Smash success would help NBC tout other shows, potentially lifting their ratings, too.

But beyond giving NBC a platform to promote more shows, a Smash home run would also serve as a signal to Hollywood (and Wall Street) that NBC had finally begun to shed the cloak of failure placed on it by Jeff Zucker and Ben Silverman. And it would help the Peacock reconnect with its historic brand as the Quality Network. Success, says one studio exec, “is what draws other good writers and producers.” What’s more, the suit says, “It will embolden [Greenblatt] to keep taking chances. If it works, he can push harder to bring back their old urban, sophisticated brand.”

What won’t runaway success do? Immediately transform NBC from also-ran to contender. Because NBC is so far behind its rivals, “Even if [Smash] works, it won’t lift them into a far superior position,” one industry observer notes. Indeed, many TV types are actually far more interested to see how The Voice does in its sophomore season. Because that show can air up to three hours per week once live rounds begin, if it manages to grow 10 or 20 percent from last spring, it will go a long way toward putting NBC at least somewhat back in the ratings game.

It does okay, but not great.
Here’s the sad fact about 10 p.m. dramas on the broadcast networks: There are simply no blockbusters at this hour anymore. Long gone are the days of ER and NYPD Blue, when the Big Three dominated the pop culture discussion with their signature hours. These days, 10 p.m. is where cable rules, with its hodgepodge of scripted hits (American Horror Story, Justified, Mad Men) and reality juggernauts (Jersey Shore, Real Housewives). Or, if folks aren’t checking out cable, they’re replaying the backlog of programming on their DVRs in the 10 p.m. hour. Even 10 p.m. shows deemed hits these days — like recent Entertainment Weekly cover subject Revenge — draw under 10 million viewers and fail to crack a 3 rating among those under 50. While a strong showing by The Voice this season will be a major boon to Smash, many believe the best case scenario for the show is not monster success but “acceptable” ratings, with the show finishing not far behind CBS’s time-slot leader Hawaii Five-O. It’s also worth noting here that many experts expect Smash to bow big this Monday, and then fall off as much as 20 to 40 percent over the next month or so; unless the show somehow manages to earn bigger ratings than its Voice lead-in, we won’t really know how Smash is faring until the end of February. “To me, the most likely scenario is that it does modest ratings, critics lap it up in droves, and it ends up like Parenthood,” one wag predicts. “They won’t be able to cancel it, but it won’t put them in the direction they need to be going.”

A more charitable comparison could be made to The West Wing, which, after a big start, settled for modest success, which NBC was able to effectively monetize by playing up the show’s upscale demographics. On paper, Smash also seems poised to overperform with the rich, urban eyeballs advertisers pay a premium to reach. If this occurs, some insiders predict Greenblatt will take a page from the playbook of early-eighties NBC leaders Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff, who rescued NBC from its Carter-era malaise though a “first be best, then be first” strategy. “I could see them doing the class-not-mass thing,” says one industry veteran, but he adds that he worries that the Peacock may be too far gone, and the media landscape too changed, for NBC to ever seriously compete for the big numbers current leaders Fox and CBS attract. “They’re just not getting back to the days of Must-See TV.”

It’s also worth remembering how CBS chief Leslie Moonves revived the Tiffany network from its brush with death back in the mid-ninieties. Long before Survivor and CSI came around at the turn of the century, Moonves got his patient breathing again by luring Bill Cosby back to TV for a post–Cosby Show sitcom. Expectations (and hype) were enormous, and Moonves paid through the nose to get Mr. Cosby. The ratings? Meh, bordering on disappointing. But it didn’t matter: The new show still performed better than most of CBS’s other recent bombs, and it pumped up the network with enough oxygen to keep it going until Moonves slowly but surely developed legitimate, game-changing hits. While it’d be nice if Smash were the small screen equal of, say, The Book of Mormon, at this point, even a modest success could end up being a long-term win for NBC.

It goes the way of Lone Star.
While the pop culture buzz for Smash has been positive, bordering on gushy, TV industry insiders with no connection to the show have been skeptical of its chances for success since the day Greenblatt announced he was picking it up. The case against Smash? It’s about Broadway. It’s a musical. It’s incredibly New York–centric. It’s too narrow, too niche, too female, too … cable. (Greenblatt originally developed it for Showtime.) “It’s a very specific show with a very specific audience, and I’m not sure it’s a big broadcast show,” our agent source frets, comparing it to Lone Star, the darling of fall 2011 that ended up canceled after just two episodes. Though it’s hard to imagine folks not showing up for the premiere, if only to see what all of NBC’s hype was about, if Smash is pulling less than a 2 demo rating by its second or third week, insiders say it will be seen as a massive disappointment, and “a referendum on” Greenblatt. “It’s not fair to judge based on one show, but people will,” one agent tell us. “He would be under a tremendous amount of pressure going forward. Of course, he’s already under pressure.” Specifically, insiders believe failure could make Greenblatt (and his bosses) wary of going too far out on a limb with future series concepts. Looking to next season, the network has already ordered the lion’s share of its pilots, so a Smash belly flop could increase the odds that more mainstream contenders (a Roseanne Barr sitcom, for example) will win out over less conventional choices (the network’s Sarah Silverman project).

Failure could also crush morale at NBC: Greenblatt’s arrival has lifted spirits at the long-suffering network (at least among those not fired in the wake of his arrival). Insiders say there’s a renewed sense of mission and cautious optimism under his regime; the collapse of Smash could understandably cause NBC staffers to wonder if their network will ever turn things around. Some also wonder about the internal political fallout. Greenblatt has been give wide autonomy to run NBC pretty much however he sees it, power that could be challenged if Smash ends up DOA. “Ted Harbert is right there waiting,” laughs one agent, referring to the former ABC and E! chief currently running NBCUniversal’s East Coast operations.

However, as embarrassing as it would be, the fallout from Smash tanking would likely be readily contained. For example, from a financial standpoint, while Smash ain’t cheap, industry insiders say its budget doesn’t break any records (or even approach the cost of a show like Terra Nova). What’s more, media blowback would likely be minimal: The reporters who cover TV tend not to penalize noble failures, which is why Fox’s Kevin Reilly emerged unscathed after Lone Star blew up and ABC’s Paul Lee drew some of the most venomous columns since the Zucker era after he dared to put Work It on the air. Also helping: Greenblatt, like FX chief John Landgraf and CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves, is a media darling, often generating warm-and-fuzzy coverage of a sort that would make the Barack Obama of the 2008 presidential campaign envious. “No matter how it performs, he won’t be vilified by you guys,” one industry wag says. 

And whatever scenario plays out over the coming weeks, Greenblatt was probably right when he told reporters a few weeks ago that Smash was not “make or break” for NBC. After all, in the current broadcast environment, one hit like The Cosby Show or Survivor can no longer single-handedly turn around a flailing network. “You need four or five shows,” Greenblatt said. Likewise, if Smash crashes, “It’s not like we’re going to go into receivership.” As one TV vet observes, the show’s most likely impact will be something a bit smaller: “It’s really more symbolic than anything else.”

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What Does NBC Have Riding on the Success of Smash?