There persists a distinct gap in the quality of dramatic series on premium cable and the broadcast networks. So, I took an opportunity to ask NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt why. The one-time HBO producer and Showtime programmer said it has little to do with the FCC. It comes down to programming for the critics and elite niche audiences or the folks back home in Illinois and Indiana.
Thirteen years ago when Bob Wright was still running things at NBC, he circulated an open letter to TV producers and programming executives asking them, in essence, how NBC could produce great dramas like The Sopranos, then at the height of its power on HBO.
P.J. Bednarski answered Wright in a smart column for B&C. He argued that NBC and the other networks didn’t come up with shows like The Sopranos, not because of explicit or implicit prohibitions of sex, violence and bad language, but because they are trapped in the “demographically tested and blessed conventions of primetime.” In broadcast, the protagonists had to be good guys and everybody had to be fit, pretty and unencumbered by moral ambiguities.
Since then, I would say that broadcast has closed the gap with cable. With the feds backing off on the policing of broadcasting, the broadcast networks have gotten bolder in their dramatic choices.
But still the gap persists.
I’ve been wanting to ask a top network programmer why and finally got my chance three weeks ago when I interviewed NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt on stage at our LiveTV:LA conference.
Greenblatt was the perfect guy to ask. Before joining NBC is 2011, he produced such shows as Six Feet Under for HBO, and then, as head of entertainment at Showtime, he oversaw the likes of Dexter, Weeds, The Tudors, The Big C and Nurse Jackie.
So, here is his answer:
Cable is typically a more luxurious medium. You can do more things in terms of subject matter. You can have a great business model with a relatively small audience. So you don’t fundamentally need a large group of people to make your business run. So you can do a show that’s just a wonderful niche show for 800,000 or a million people and feel really good about yourself. And the critics love it, and you can really flourish in that kind of medium. It’s really fun to do that.
And every now and then, a cable hit gets to the level of a broadcast hit, like The Walking Dead or The Sopranos. But most of them are little, tiny niche shows that we all think in our bubble of New York and LA, are massive, cultural game changers. In fact, my family in Indiana and Illinois have never heard of them. And in fact, my family never watched anything on Showtime. They didn’t get it, they didn’t care. So it’s a lovely, luxurious, kind of elite medium to work in.
The flip side is, in the broadcast world, you need to appeal to many more millions of people. Therefore, forget about what the FCC says. You just need to be more mindful of language and subject matter, and what certain characters do because, the entire country, in spite of the fact that we live in a very liberal business, does not want to see lots of sexuality. They do not want to hear language. They do not want to see serial killers running around being the centerpieces of shows. They don’t watch those kinds of shows. And it’s not just because they don’t have the [pay] services in their homes to watch them. They don’t seek them out.
Therefore, if you want to be successful in broadcast, which is defined by how much advertising you bring in, right, you need to have a big audience. And the larger the audience, the … edges of the show usually have to be rounded off a little bit. So that’s the challenge.
How do you get that big audience with something that doesn’t sort of feel lowest common denominator? You’re not going to do Dexter. In fact, we put Dexter on CBS during the strike, and it did a very small number. [O]n Showtime, it was our biggest show ever.
A show like The Blacklist, which is a big hit for us in broadcast, which has 15 to 17 million viewers a week, which is bigger than any show on cable, except maybe The Walking Dead, is one of those shows which sort of has a cable feel to it because the main character is a darker character. But it also has heroic figures around it…. It has, I think, a combination of both universes.
The challenge of broadcast is, how do you compete with the glossy, sexy cable shows, but also … not lose your audience.”
Chew on that with your turkey. Happy Thanksgiving!