NBC’s swagger is now a stagger; no help in sight

NBC's 'Smash,' starring Katharine McPhee, left, and Megan Hilty has been a major disappointment.
NBC's 'Smash,' starring Katharine McPhee, left, and Megan Hilty has been a major disappointment.

LOS ANGELES — This winter, NBC has learned the hard way just how fleeting victory can be.

The network had its best fall in years. The new prime-time lineup got a welcome push from the Summer Olympics in London. The post-apocalyptic drama Revolution was a surprise hit after The Voice, the singing contest that has turned into NBC’s main entertainment draw. NFL games reigned supreme on Sundays. Mired in fourth place for years, NBC suddenly found itself No. 1 — a position it hadn’t regularly seen in nearly a decade.

Entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt, a former producer and Showtime boss hailed as the mastermind of NBC’s turnaround, was confident enough to take a swipe at a rival network chief during a presentation to reporters last month. He exulted that in reengineering NBC, he was following the old mantra of 1980s programming legend Grant Tinker: “First, be best; then, be first.”

And then, as these winter weeks have dragged on, the victory pedestal has come crashing down.

The Broadway drama Smash — Greenblatt’s pet project — bombed on its return, with low ratings that shocked even TV veterans. The medical thriller Do No Harm posted the worst numbers ever for a new network drama. Football is gone until fall, and The Voice and Revolution won’t be back until next month.

Even 30 Rock — the sitcom that drew critical raves but not high ratings — wrapped up its run.

Things have sunk so low that for the first time ever, NBC finished the February “sweeps” period — which local stations use to help determine ad rates — in fifth place, behind CBS, Fox, ABC, and Spanish-language Univision. Its top-rated entertainment show is The Biggest Loser — at No. 35.

“I hate to say it, but they’re in trouble,” said Gary Carr, senior vice president at the media agency TargetCast. “Nothing’s really held. Go night by night, and they don’t really have anything” that’s performing well.

What’s more, he added, “they don’t seem to have a whole lot of great shows coming down the line.”

The situation casts a dark cloud over the tenure of Greenblatt, who was brought aboard two years ago by the network’s parent, the cable giant Comcast. His stewardship of Showtime had led to a number of shows that drew critical praise and pop-culture buzz, including Weeds, a dark comedy about a pot-dealing mom, and Dexter, about a vigilante serial killer.

Although few TV veterans believe Greenblatt’s job is in imminent jeopardy, his future will likely depend on the programs he develops for this fall. NBC has ordered 11 drama and 17 comedy pilots — a higher total than any other network — in a sign that it’s ramping up efforts to find new hits. By comparison, CBS, the most-watched network, has ordered 24 pilots — evenly divided between drama and comedy — with network boss Leslie Moonves already indicating that very few of those will make it to the schedule presented to advertisers in May. NBC, however, is likely to have far more holes in its schedule that need to be plugged with new material.

NBC executives declined to comment on the record for this story.

In fairness, no broadcaster has been on a tear this season. The fall lineups have yet to produce any runaway hits, and every network except CBS is down among total viewers compared with last year. Fox has shrunk a whopping 23 percent, due largely to poorer-than-expected showings for its singing shows The X Factor and American Idol.