Robert Greenblatt: A TV Change Agent

When Robert Greenblatt arrived at NBC in 2011 to run the Entertainment division for a once-proud network down on its ratings luck, he brought his prodigious programming talent, a keen eye for hits and, most importantly, an appreciation for legacy. Growing up in Rockford, Ill., the big theater and movies fan also loved watching shows on the network that he’d one day run, especially the hits in Thursday’s vaunted “Must-See TV” lineup.

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The challenge to turn things around at NBC was great, but Greenblatt’s career had led him to this moment. While at USC film school, he’d interned at 20th Century Fox’s film studio, met his mentor, Peter Chernin (then president of Lorimar-Telepictures) and ultimately landed a job in 1988 as Chernin’s story editor. Several years later, Warner Bros. bought Lorimar and Chernin moved to Fox, taking with him the young Greenblatt, who would run Fox’s primetime programming during a blissful heyday from 1992-97. Among the shows he developed: enduring classics such as Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Ally McBeal, Party of Five and The X-Files, series that significantly pushed the Zeitgeist needle. This was also a time he came to know the legendary Brandon Tartikoff, who’d left NBC to become a producer. As Greenblatt would later write, “The unmitigated pride I saw on [Brandon’s] face whenever he talked about [NBC] has always stayed with me.”

It’s the kind of pride that, in a sense, continued to inform Greenblatt’s industry journey. After Fox, he went that same independent producing route, forging dozen of series; most notably, there was Six Feet Under for HBO, the 2002 Golden Globe Best Drama winner and multiple Emmy nominee. The next stop was Showtime, where he repositioned the network as a cable leader and added a roster of memorable favorites to his resume: Weeds, Dexter, Shameless, Nurse Jackie and Episodes, among many others. By 2010, the place was an awards-nominee juggernaut.

But the biggest and most satisfying challenge awaited. At NBC, as chairman, NBC Entertainment, beginning in 2011, he pulled off a worst-to-first move that saw NBC rise from a decade in the cellar to a five-year run as the most popular 18-49 network in broadcasting, with a total viewer crown on the horizon. How? By securing sports tentpoles such as Sunday Night Football and the Olympics. By propping up unscripted with the megawatt hit The Voice. By making NBC home to Dick Wolf’s absorbing and popular Chicago franchises. (Wolf has called his bond with Greenblatt “the most successful executive producer-network entertainment head relationship in the history of television.”) And by reinforcing a lineup with the likes of This Is Us, the revival of Will & Grace and many more. To take a nod from another of the network’s best series, NBC is now very much in The Good Place.

Greenblatt has announced plans to seek a different path in the coming months, which only proves that the man with an appreciation for legacy also knows how to leave one.

Robert Edelstein

Rob has written for Broadcasting+Cable since 2006, starting with his work on the magazine’s award-winning 75th-anniversary issue. He was born a few blocks away from Yankee Stadium … so of course he’s published three books on NASCAR, most notably, Full Throttle: The Life and Fast Times of NASCAR Legend Curtis Turner. He’s currently the special projects editor at TV Guide Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post and his origami art has been in The Wall Street Journal. He lives with his family in New Jersey and is writing a novel about the Wild West.