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Robert Greenblatt was facing a gargantuan rebuild when he took over NBC Entertainment in 2011. The network had been in last place for years. Its few primetime staples were aging, and morale was low.
Several of Greenblatt’s friends wondered why he would depart the programming empire he’d built at Showtime. Hits such as Weeds, Dexter and Shameless took root under Greenblatt’s programming presidency.
“A lot of people thought it was crazy,” he conceded. Turning around a broadcast network’s entertainment department, involving series and specials and late night, was a different story. Toss in the mounting competition from cable and streaming services — Netflix, for one, was plotting out its ambitious originals strategy — and Greenblatt faced a truly Herculean task.
He was up for it.
“I grew up in the heyday of ‘Must-See TV’ and loved it as a viewer,” said Greenblatt, who often quotes NBC’s past entertainment chiefs. “I thought it would be a really exciting proposition.”
One of his first orders of business was making sure marquee sports franchises, including Sunday Night Football and the Olympics, were part of NBC’s strategy for years to come.
Unscripted fare was next, with staple The Voice launching in the spring of 2011. The program premiered strongly and showed it had the potential to scale. Greenblatt did just that, putting The Voice on in spring and fall a year later.
Then he focused on scripted programming. Dick Wolf’s Chicago Fire debuted in the fall of 2012, and begat Chicago P.D. and Chicago Med. Wolf described his bond with Greenblatt as “the most successful executive producer-network entertainment head relationship in the history of television.”
Other edgy originals such as The Blacklist let the creative community know that NBC was back in the game. Greenblatt said the goal was to get primetime in a good spot within five years. Taking over first place took three years.
Steve Burke, NBCUniversal CEO, said Greenblatt’s mix of energy, enthusiasm and savvy brought on the rapid-fire turnaround. “It’s one thing to sketch out a plan on a napkin. It’s another thing to actually see it happen,” he said. “I don’t think we could’ve scripted a better outcome.”
Greenblatt’s entire career, and perhaps his entire life, prepared him for the rebuild. The son of an HVAC system designer father and a travel agent mother, he grew up in Rockford, Ill., and enjoyed the city’s lively theater scene. Greenblatt was also obsessed with movies, and dreamed of running a film studio.
“I was very fascinated at a young age with the studio system,” he said.
Greenblatt attended USC’s film school and landed an internship at 20th Century Fox’s film studio, where he ended up meeting his mentor. Peter Chernin, president of production outfit Lorimar-Telepictures at the time, hired Greenblatt to be his story editor in 1988.
It wasn’t the last time Chernin hired Greenblatt.
“I’d hire Bob any time, anywhere, any chance I get,” said Chernin, now chairman and CEO of The Chernin Group.
When Lorimar was sold to Warner Bros., Chernin shifted to Fox, and convinced Greenblatt to follow him. Greenblatt ran Fox’s primetime programming from 1992 to 1997, developing Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, The X-Files and other hit series. “He was very forward thinking in terms of what the audience wants,” Chernin said.
Greenblatt went on to be an independent producer, bringing over a dozen series to life, including HBO smash Six Feet Under. He joined Showtime in 2003 and shaped the premium network’s identity as a destination for quirky, compelling series while building its subscriber base.
Then came NBC. When Comcast was considering a takeover of network parent NBCUniversal, Chernin was on board as an adviser. When NBC was looking for an entertainment chief, Chernin had a suggestion. “Peter is responsible for every single major move in my career,” Greenblatt said.
NBC is in a vastly different place six-and-a-half years later. While the network used to launch seven or eight series every fall, the number stood at just three this season. “Back then, it was just kind of panic and triage,” Greenblatt said. “Nowadays, we’re calm and focused. There’s no panic in the streets.”
The new shows include the Will & Grace reboot and Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, from Dick Wolf. Wolf credits Greenblatt for his hands-on approach and honest feedback. “I’m the happiest guy in town,” he said of his increased output at NBC.
Of course, it is season two of This Is Us, a show that not only seized serious Nielsen points, but was in the running for the outstanding drama Emmy. Burke said such hits “energize the whole company.”
Sophomore slumps are common, but Greenblatt, who said ideas for hit shows come from the gut of inspired writers, not from network honchos, said This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman has a unique plan.
“You have to have a completely extraordinary vision from the creator,” Greenblatt said. “The greater the vision, the better the chance that you have a true hit.”
When he’s not crafting television, Greenblatt unwinds at his homes in Palm Springs and New York, playing piano and spending time with friends and his Doberman, Hudson, who he called “the greatest dog that ever lived.”
Running NBC Entertainment is an all-consuming job, but Greenblatt takes it in stride. “It’s not like I’m doing surgery 15 hours a day,” he said. “We make shows and deal with talent and go to premieres. It’s a really fun career — especially when it’s going well.”
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.