Features

Built to Order

NBC’s Robert Greenblatt thrives on building — shows, audiences, networks and human connections via the arts.

Jenny Hontz
  • Art Streiber/NBC
  • Art Streiber/NBC

As a producer and network executive at Fox, NBC and Showtime, Robert Greenblatt has had a hand in creating many of television's most iconic shows over the past 25 years, from Beverly Hills, 90210 to Six Feet Under to This Is Us.

With a startup mentality honed during the earliest days of Fox, network TV's first openly gay entertainment chief has a knack for turnaround.

As chairman of NBC Entertainment, he's responsible for all aspects of primetime, late-night and scripted daytime programming, including business affairs, marketing, communications, scheduling, West Coast research and digital operations.

Since joining the network in 2011, he's taken it from last to first in the demos coveted by advertisers — all while producing Broadway musicals on the side. His philosophy: be bold, different and explosive.

Q: Describing your background, you once said you were a gay Catholic kid with a Jewish last name who grew up in Rockford, Illinois. Did you always want a career in entertainment?

A: That does kind of explain it in a nutshell. I was very steeped in the theater, even though I grew up out in the middle of the cornfield. We were about 80 miles outside Chicago, but I was able to go to Chicago all the time with my mother, who loves the theater. I saw every first-class national tour of a musical from 1970 to 1980.

Rockford, Illinois, also had a number of arts organizations, even though it was a blue-collar town that specialized in building furniture and manufacturing things like pencil sharpeners and screw products.

I went to high school with a very elaborate, full-blown theater department that produced some of the most incredible shows. And all of my friends and classmates in high school were encouraged to go into the professional theater for a career, and — God bless our parents, who didn't think that it was just crazy — many of us did. There was no doubt whatsoever that I was going to pursue this somehow.

Q: I heard that you knew you wanted to be a studio executive by age 14.

A: I did. I saw a movie in 1974 called That's Entertainment, a very famous feature documentary, a compilation of all the great musicals that MGM made in the '30s, '40s and '50s. When I was a kid growing up in the '70s, there was no internet. You didn't see movies at your fingertips. When I went to That's Entertainment, I was blown away, because in that movie there are clips from 50 or 60 of the greatest musicals ever made — all by one studio.

I was a pianist and very involved in musical theater as an accompanist. So these were movies I instantly fell in love with, and then I realized that one movie studio made them all. I couldn't believe it. I was a 14-year-old kid, and I immediately thought, "One day I want to work at that studio."

Now, I didn't realize this at that time, but That's Entertainment was a last hurrah, as MGM was being sold and the backlot was being leveled. I didn't know that the studio system was over by that point.

Years later, I got the weekly version of The Hollywood Reporter in Madison, Wisconsin, where I went to graduate school [at the University of Wisconsin, where he earned a master's degree in arts administration]. I quickly learned the studios didn't make those kinds of musicals anymore — nor did MGM really exist like that.

But I always thought in the back of my mind, "How do I get to Hollywood and get into whatever's left of this entertainment business?" I eventually figured out how — by going to film school.

Q: And how did you break into the business after film school?

A: At the end of graduate school, I thought, "The only option I have is to move to Los Angeles and start knocking on doors," and that is what I did.

I got a job working for a producer, an assistant job, and I thought, "Well this is good, but I am not sure how fast this is going to move me." I decided film school was the way to go, but only one film school — because I specifically wanted to be a studio executive, not a filmmaker — and USC has [the Peter Stark Producing Program] to help train studio executives.

I went in the fall of '85, and at that time, television was a dirty word in Hollywood. You did not aspire to television. If you were serious about the entertainment industry, you were a filmmaker or a film executive. It is interesting how that has changed in the last 30 years. I went into that program primarily because the summer between the first and second year, you're given an internship at a major movie studio.

I was assigned to 20th Century Fox, the features studio. There was no TV network then, and I was privileged to work in a film administration headed by Scott Rudin. The company was run by Barry Diller. I was low man on the totem pole, but I was in the door, and it was thrilling.

That internship was scheduled for eight weeks, and they kept me on for a whole year. So I ended up working at the studio during the second year of film school for $200 a week and no benefits. I was playing piano at the Hamlet Gardens restaurant in Westwood on the weekends to support myself.

I realized that I needed to get a real job, so I went to work for Peter Chernin, who was the new head of motion pictures at Lorimar, and that was the moment that changed my entire career. Peter became a mentor and is one to this day. I am having drinks with him next week. He is one of my best friends, and he has been involved in virtually every move of my career for the past 30 years.

Then I worked for him for seven years at Fox. He is also the guy who was advising Brian Roberts and Steve Burke when [Comcast was] acquiring NBC Universal eight years ago, and he said to them, "You need to hire Bob Greenblatt to run NBC. He is the only guy you should try to get. He's at Showtime, but maybe you can get him." So I give Peter that credit also.

Q: You got on the radar of the TV world at Fox, where you developed shows like Melrose Place, The X-Files, Party of Five and Beverly Hills, 90210. How different was that from leading NBC?

A: It was similar in some ways and completely different in other ways. It was like a startup company. It's hard to imagine, but we only had two nights of programming. The network was national only on Saturday and Sunday nights when I got there.

The company was only two years old, and all the senior executives could fit in one conference room. Every Tuesday morning, we had these staff meetings, probably thirty-five people total, but in the room were Barry Diller, Peter Chernin, Jamie Kellner and sometimes Rupert Murdoch, and we were all sitting around figuring out how to make this network into a real thing.

It was very much touch and go. Nobody really wanted to produce shows for us because they didn't know if we were going to be around. And what I learned from Peter — and it was seminal for me — because our existence was threatened, we had to make it a place that was undeniably great to work at.

The only way to do that was to go to producers in town and say, "You can do the show at Fox that you could never do anywhere else. We are going to be bold, we are going to be different, we are going to be explosive." We put the company on the map by being different. That has always stayed with me, from [when I was] a producer to Showtime to NBC.

Q: Cable adopted that philosophy, and after Fox you were a producer with David Janollari, doing Six Feet Under, and then you went to Showtime, which was also struggling until you put on some bold shows like Weeds and Dexter and Queer As Folk. What have you gleaned from these different aspects of the business, and what has been most fun? Do you like going into a struggling place and turning it around? NBC was also struggling when you arrived….

A: It is the thing that makes me most invigorated. Who wants to walk into a company that is doing great, and you're just maintaining the status quo? I really like building something or rebranding something or rebuilding. Fox was that to a T. We were building something almost out of nothing, and it was thrilling.

To see the progress from two to four to seven nights of programming, to becoming number one in the 18-to-49 demo the fall that I left... A network that was written off and laughed at by the other broadcast networks… to do some of the programming that now is considered some of the most groundbreaking television in history was thrilling.

Showtime was the same way, and NBC [too] — different experiences, but they all needed either a rethink or a complete reorganization, rebranding. It is not easy, and there is usually a lot of uncertainty. You have to replace a lot of people and do things that are very disruptive. But the idea of building or rebuilding something is the most exciting part.

Even though I've had very different experiences from cable to broadcast, it is the same job no matter where you are. You might have to do slightly different kinds of programming, and you might have certain restrictions in one that you don't have in the other.

But you have to look at the organization and say, "Who are we and what do we need to be? What lane do we need to be in to succeed?" But the other stuff is very much the same: how do we jump out of the clutter, and how do we do things that are so undeniable or of such a high quality that they will be taken seriously?

Q: When you came to NBC, it had been at the bottom of the broadcast networks for years, and now you've been number one in the 18-to-49 demographic for four of the past five years. How did you do that?

A: Part of it is luck. Part of it is some very specific strategic decisions. A lot of things have to kind of align and go right, or it doesn't happen. But when I walked in the door, I had to do two things simultaneously: one was look at the entire organization and reorganize most of it and restaff a lot of it, which is different than [what] I did at Showtime. [There] I didn't change staff. It was just a matter of reorienting everybody.

NBC was a different animal. It was much larger, but it had sunk to a place where the morale was really low. It had gone through ownership change after ownership change. There was a real psychological problem, and so I had to make a lot of changes in personnel and do a specific analysis of how we reorganize ourselves so that we could get to a position where people want to work here, and we can make shows that anybody wants to watch.

I wish we could have closed for repairs for a couple of years and then opened up again. Every night we had to go, "What is on next week, and what is our fall season going to look like?" Even though we had much bigger, endemic problems that we had to fix.

We had to build a whole digital component, because this company was digitally very behind the other networks. The studio had to be restarted. It had been shut down, so NBC Studios was nonexistent. There were so many things that had to happen simultaneously, so it was a lot of spinning plates.

I am happy to say that we got very lucky. We were smart, but we got lucky also, in quickly putting together The Voice a few months after I got here. It was an enormous hit. That gave us great air cover for the next couple of years as we tried to reboot the network and get new shows to carry the network forward. Without The Voice, I'm not sure we could ever have turned the network around as quickly. In three years, we were back to number one.

Q: In 2011, you became the first openly gay network head, and now we have Channing Dungey, the first African American network entertainment president, at ABC. What does it say that in the middle of the Trump presidency we have such a diverse group of executives leading networks and studios? Do you feel like the culture wars have been won by those who view America as inclusive and see diversity as good business?

A: I don't go into the world thinking I'm a gay executive or gay person first. It's just part of who I am, so it's not revolutionary to me that I'm in this position. I've found Hollywood and this business completely open and inclusive from day one, when I arrived here in 1984 at age 24.

Every job I've had — from my first job as an intern at 20th Century Fox to the jobs I've had with Peter Chernin, [with] Leslie Moonves — there's not been one second of discussion about my sexuality or my orientation. I quickly saw there were many gay and lesbian and now transgendered people in this industry. I never for a second felt anything but openness in any job that I was doing. I found many friends and colleagues who were diverse: gay, African American, transgender, all kinds of people.

For the purpose of putting out more positive images, it would be great to have more of us in leadership roles. But one of my very first experiences putting a gay character on television was with the great Aaron Spelling, who was from Texas, a Southern straight male.

We were doing Beverly Hills, 90210, which was created by Darren Star, who is gay, and then we did Melrose Place. It was very organic that we put a character in Melrose Place who was gay. Aaron had put a very prominent character, Steven Carrington, on Dynasty years before that, who had storylines about his sexuality and his father's difficulty in dealing with it.

Q: Is diversity good for business, and does diversity in the executive suite affect what we see onscreen? Did it have anything to do with the revival of Will & Grace, or would that have happened anyway?

A: It is good business, absolutely, because the world is really diverse. It just makes sense. We're fighting for audience every day, so of course it makes sense to be more and more inclusive. We can now do shows that speak to niches of audiences and smaller groups.

When I was at Showtime, we had a really strong female and gay audience because we were doing Queer As Folk and The L Word. That was good business for us. Fundamentally, for me, it's about reflecting the world the way it really is. Will & Grace was a groundbreaking show. I'm thrilled to bring it back. It's great that it's a show with really strong gay characters, but it's also just a great show.

The diversity in our company — I'm very, very proud of it. The head of our current programming department is African American [Bruce Evans]. The head of the Universal Television scripted studio is an African American woman [Pearlena Igbokwe]. There're women who co-run the scripted side of NBC [Lisa Katz and Tracey Pakosta].

There's a woman who runs Universal Television scripted [Erin Underhill], there's a woman who runs Universal Television unscripted [Meredith Ahr], and we have other diversities. If you're pitching a show with all-white characters, it's a complete disconnect. You're in the room with people who are representing all different strata of our world, and that organically makes for shows that represent those strata.

Q: I read that Will & Grace was originally scheduled for 10 episodes, but after the first table read, you wanted more. What did you see at that table read that made you want a longer commitment?

A: I always wanted more, and I was always hoping I could get more, but I figured I would do it gradually, because I wanted those actors to really want to do it. I think the initial order was a bit of a surprise. They had come back together to do that [get-out-the-vote video] that they put out digitally during the [2016] election, and then I think it was like, "Oh, maybe we should do some more episodes."

I don't think any of them thought we were going do three more seasons. But I did. I didn't know how quickly I could get there, but I thought, "Why not bring back one of the best shows of the last 20 years with a cast still in their prime?" So we ordered 10 episodes, and I thought, "Well, that will get their feet wet again, and hopefully they'll love doing it."

Then we went to that first table reading, and there was no doubt when they read it. [Executive producer–director] Jimmy Burrows was sitting at the table, and it felt really special and funny and as high-quality as it's ever been. So why not try to get more episodes? I immediately got them to do a few more [episodes] that first season, and then while doing the first 13, I said, "Why don't we just all agree and do a second season now?"

My worst fear was we'd put Will & Grace back on the air and then they'd all get offers to do other things. I just didn't want them to get away. [The show is currently slated through its third season, with 18 episodes planned for seasons two and three.]

Q: Why are so many old shows being remade right now? Seth Meyers joked at your upfronts that if you had a show in the '90s and your phone hasn't rung this week, you must have been heartbroken.

A: I'm always looking for a really good show, and there are many ways to achieve that. One of them is by looking at shows that have gone before us and saying, "Oh, we can go back there again."

Our studio is making a totally new version of Magnum P.I. for CBS, which is good business for us. And it seems like that's something that's been working for CBS — bringing back Hawaii Five-0 and MacGyver. We rebooted Magnum in a really fresh way with a Latino [lead, Jay Hernandez].

You have to look at each show and see if you have the goods and if you're excited about it. You can fall into the trap of it being an easy way to fill your development slate, and I don't want to do that, so it's really: who's behind it? Does it make sense? Do you have the right idea? Is it relevant in today's world? And you make a case-by-case decision. But it's also nice to see some of these extraordinary shows from the past come back.

Q: From a branding perspective, it's got to be easier to launch a show that had a following in the past, when viewership was higher and there were fewer outlets.

A: It can be. You certainly do have a leg up when you have a title that is ubiquitous, like Will & Grace. It can be easier to get noticed in this sea of TV shows. But nobody had heard of This Is Us two years ago, and it's the biggest drama in all of television. The Good Place is [another] show no one had ever heard of. I have the great Ted Danson and the great Kristen Bell.

It was a really odd, high-concept show that wasn't the easiest concept to sell, because it's hard to describe, but it's a home run for us.

You have to look at each show on its own terms. I don't want to be the reboot king, but if something comes along that warrants it, I think it's a valid way to go.

Q: There are rumors about rebooting The Office and The West Wing ….

A: I keep saying that's not going to happen, and then everyone asks me, "Oh, is this happening?" So it is probably best if I don't even talk about reboots anymore.

Q: What about Bombshell, the fictional Broadway show about Marilyn Monroe that was part of the plot of Smash? Is that something you're pursuing, or was that just rumor?

A: We are actually in the early stages of development of, hopefully, a Broadway-bound musical that is some version of Bombshell. It may be a combination of Smash and Bombshell, not just the Marilyn Monroe story. I'm hoping we can get it off the ground at some point. Broadway musicals take a lifetime, but we're out of the gate, at least, with a plan.

Q: You clearly have a passion for musicals. Somehow you've managed to find time to produce four of them on Broadway while doing this job, including Dear Evan Hansen and Mean Girls. You've also brought musicals to NBC, starting with Smash in 2012 and a year later, The Sound of Music Live!, which pulled in 22 million live-plus-seven viewers. Now musicals are a yearly NBC tradition.

A: The idea was to develop things that get a lot of attention. We decided that more live events is a good thing. And the musical was not a long, thought-out strategy. It was a whim of an idea to see if we could pull it off, and who knew what it would deliver? In fact, we didn't think it would do anywhere near what it did. It was just an idea in a much larger strategy of live events.

We're the home of the Olympics. We have The Voice live and big sections of America's Got Talent that are live, and a lot of live sports and news. It was a wonderful thing for me personally, because it combined another passion of mine with television, and lo and behold, Sound of Music that week beat our Sunday-night football game. And it became a real signature of the network. A live musical obviously is only possible on broadcast television.

Q: Are streaming and its effects on advertising the biggest challenges facing broadcast networks today?

A: Yes, it's the audience now being able to watch when and where they want. It's not, "Oh, Netflix is a thing, and Amazon's a thing, and they're stealing our business." We're very much in business with Netflix, and we own one of those platforms in Hulu, so it's not like it's them versus us, or they've caused the demise of our business.

You really have to look at it a different way. We invented a way for the audience to watch programming whenever and wherever they want. I can either resist that and sit here in my little network world and say, "No, you have to watch our shows when I program them live over the air in a linear fashion," or you go, "Okay, this is the way people want to watch now. I need to put my programming everywhere I can to reach that audience."

The lion's share will still come from the linear experience on my network. But a huge and growing percentage of it is now coming from all the other places we put our programming. Our shows are on Hulu. Some of our shows are on Netflix. We have shows on NBC.com.

Our lineup is in skinny bundles with other networks that you can get through YouTube, or we break shows up into clips and put them on YouTube. We're interested in putting our programming in as many places as we can — so long as we can get paid for it.

So, we're getting smarter about how and where to distribute all these shows and how to get paid, and also how to count all the people that are watching on all these different platforms. There are more people than ever watching our programming — it's just in many different ways.

Q: The streaming business has shone a light on consumers' preference for commercial-free viewing. That's a challenge for broadcasters, who operate ad-supported businesses. Can you talk about your reduction in ad loads as a response to this?

A: Yes, it is a challenge for the linear view, but again, we're happy to put our shows on Hulu, which has a different ad experience and a no-ad experience. Not only do we co-own Hulu, I'm totally agnostic about driving revenue from different places. And if the ad experience is better, great.

But on the network, we are constantly trying to improve the ad experience. We're doing a better job integrating advertising into programming in smarter ways. In Hairspray, we did a live Oreo commercial, which was really fun, really entertaining.

We're also working on a plan to make some of our ad pods shorter so that we can retain the audience and hold them longer. We know the audience isn't as enamored with advertising as they once were, so we're trying to address that creatively as much as we can.

Q: You recently lost two of your top executives to Amazon, and you promoted two executives to be co-presidents. How is that working?

A: I'm thrilled for Jen Salke having this opportunity at Amazon. [The former NBC Entertainment president became head of Amazon Studios in February]. She's a dear friend and I couldn't be happier for her.

It's always hard to see someone you love depart the company, but we have the deepest, strongest bench of any network I can think of, and it was really seamless to promote Tracey Pakosta and Lisa Katz to co-run what she was doing at the network [as co-presidents, scripted programming].

We haven't really missed a beat. If this had happened five years ago when we were still getting the network back on track, it would have been really disruptive. But it's a really well-oiled machine with extraordinary people at every level, so it hasn't affected us negatively.

Q: What are some of the shows you're excited about for next season?

A: New Amsterdam is a terrific medical show that we're happy to have following This Is Us on Tuesdays. We have a terrific new show called Manifest, with Warner Bros. and [executive producer] Bob Zemeckis, a big "what-if" premise that I think will make a lot of noise.

We've got a new comedy called I Feel Bad from [executive producer] Amy Poehler, a really fresh take on a woman trying to balance all the things in her life. I think it will be very relatable to a lot of mothers and working women.

For midseason, we're making a big push in reality. America's Got Talent is coming into the midseason with a special edition anchored by Simon [Cowell], The Champions. We have The Rock [Dwayne Johnson] coming [for The Titan Games]. That is an enormous coup, to get a star who is that major, in a big, new, aspirational athletic competition.

Ellen's Game of Games will be back. We've got a whole stable full of additional shows for our traditional March season, when The Voice comes back. We're going to have some new dramas [like] The Village, another wonderful comedy from Mike Schur called Abby's, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Q: Picking up Brooklyn Nine-Nine after Fox canceled it was big news. You had first crack at that show because it's produced in-house, and I read that you regretted letting it go. How much of the decision to pick it up is a back-end business decision versus a network and creative decision?

A: It's kind of both. We were thrilled to have Fox order the show and have it on their air for all these years, and it turned into one of the bigger successful comedy series to come out of network television in a while. It had a robust syndication deal and has international appeal, which is hard for comedy. So after all these years and Fox deciding that it was going to go in a slightly different direction, it made all the sense in the world for us to put it on our air.

It feels like it will fit beautifully with the NBC comedy strategy. Andy [Samberg] grew up on NBC, and it's a really smart, funny, contemporary, relevant show with lots of diversity. It's a funny show that we think — knock on wood — has several more years in it.

When we first heard the pitch many years ago for NBC, we thought, "Oh, that will be a wonderful show," but it didn't immediately seem to fit our network. Then, once it got ordered to Fox and Andy came aboard — he wasn't when it was originally pitched to us — I was very envious that we didn't have it for NBC.

Q: You're doing Chicago Wednesdays in the fall, with Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. Why did you decide to do that?

A: We played with this idea over the years. A lot of people make fun of the franchise. There're lots of jokes about "Chicago Garbage Man" and Chicago whatever. But these shows are incredibly strong tent poles of our schedule and, up until now, we really needed them at 10 o'clock, so, it was hard to stack them at 8 and 9 and 10.

We needed one of them on at 10 o'clock on Tuesday and one at 10 o'clock on Thursday. And, given that we have real strengths on Tuesday, and we decided it would be great to put SVU at 10 o'clock on Thursday, it suddenly freed up our ability to do Wednesday 8, 9 and 10. We think there's great synergy between those shows.

Even when we're not doing a big intentional crossover, some of the cops from P.D. will come into the ER at Chicago Med if there's a storyline that needs that. It seems great to have them all back to back.

Q: Last year NBC broke a dry spell with the Emmys. You got 64 nominations, and wins for This Is Us and Saturday Night Live. This year you got even more nominations: 78. How did those wins last year feel? And are you excited to have Colin Jost and Michael Che hosting the Emmys on NBC this year, with Lorne Michaels producing?

A: We always love to win Emmys. We know how difficult it is now to win them, because there are so many great shows eligible on so many networks and streaming services and platforms. So, when you have a good showing, it feels really good. I keep trying to make the point that broadcast television is alive and well, and part of that argument is made when we are nominated for and win Emmys.

We're thrilled to have [the Emmys ceremony] this year. We have a really deep bench of extraordinary comedians, and we lean on Jimmy [Fallon] and Seth [Meyers] to do a lot for us. I thought this year it might be fun to go to that other extraordinary well of comedy and hugely Emmy-winning show, Saturday Night Live. Colin and Che have cemented themselves as the great cohosts of "Weekend Update" in the last few years.

In the political climate we're in, every Saturday Night Live, you look forward to the "Weekend Update" to see what they're going to talk about. Lorne was very keen on doing it this year with these guys. Hopefully, we're going to infiltrate the [Emmy] show with several other people from SNL, and we're going to do some very special pre-shot comedy bits. Lorne is determined to shake it up and do something different.

Q: Aside from producing Broadway shows, what do you do for fun in your time off, if you have free time with such a demanding job?

A: These jobs are demanding, sure, but they are also a joy. I make musicals. I make dramas and comedies for a living. In my own spare time, I have been more and more involved in theater, which is exciting for me — not only working on shows on Broadway. I'm also on the board of the Center Theatre Group here in Los Angeles.

I'm very involved in another nonprofit called the Educational Theatre Association, which is bringing theater programs to schools that can't otherwise afford them. That's a passion of mine, to give kids what I had: this incredible high school theater experience, which really did change my life.

If anyone thinks these [network] jobs are insufferable, or you're so busy that you can't enjoy your life, they're lying to you, because these are the greatest jobs in the world. We have fun. I mean, every day we're creative, and we make things for a living.

Sure, there are challenges in the business, and it's relentless because there's just so much going on, but every show that we pull off gets into the culture, the zeitgeist. I mean, the rewards of This Is Us are so bountiful, and it hasn't felt like work for one second.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Is there anything you haven't accomplished at this point?

A: I have no idea where the future goes because I've never really planned any of this. It's such a robust time for television. There's never been a greater time to be part of this world.

So, I think I'll be doing that to some degree. Whether I'm producing shows and focusing on the few things that I love — as opposed to running some larger company — I really have no idea. But I think I'll probably be active somehow in television and, hopefully, in the theater, and we'll see what the future holds.


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2018