NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt bluntly acknowledged Friday that NBC had "a really bad fall" and needs stronger lead-in shows.
Greenblatt, whose network is in fourth place, spoke at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif. In plainspoken style, he acknowledged ratings were down and that NBC has to improve.
"We had a really bad fall, worse than I'd hoped for but actually about what I expected," he said. "People keep saying the only place we have to go is up, which I do believe is true, but there's a lot of work to do before we get there."
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The low ratings of the Maria Bello drama "Prime Suspect," were fall's greatest disappointment, though he considered the show a creative success, he told reporters. "Was it the hat?" he joked, referring to the main character's wardrobe. He also said the show's grittiness may have been too much for some viewers.
Greenblatt said he believed "The Playboy Club," the first show of the fall season to be cancelled, failed because of "a rejected concept."
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He added: "We thought going to that period would be interesting to people. I know people thought we said, 'We have a show like 'Mad Men,' let’s put that on.' But I don’t think people were that fascinated by that milieu, and maybe it’s a little too obscure for them too."
Addressing whether Ryan Seacrest could replace Matt Lauer on "The Today Show" at the end of Lauer's contract this year, he said NBCUniversal hopes both will stay with the company. Seacrest is the lead anchor for E! news.
"I think the goal at the moment is, you know, we'd want to keep Ryan Seacrest in the family, primarily because of E! He's got a huge presence on that network," and could also be an asset to NBC, he said.
Greenblatt said NBC has already picked up several pilots and plans to order several more next week. Asked if he was spending too much money on development, Greenblatt said, "It’s like gambling. You don’t have any idea — in spite of how good our guts are — you really don’t know what’s going to work and what isn’t."
He also said NBC has high hopes for the new drama "Smash," but joked that if it doesn't hit, "It's not like we're going to go into receivership."
He said the rollout would include ads during the Super Bowl. The returning midseason hit "The Voice" will follow the Super Bowl on Feb. 5, and "Smash" will premiere the next day, paired with "The Voice."
The success of "The Voice" was a welcome and unexpected surprise, he said. He declined to criticize Fox's new vocal competition, "The X Factor," which debuted to strong ratings but couldn't outscore "American Idol," as "X Factor" creator Simon Cowell hoped it would.
Greenblatt said "The Voice" has succeeded by emphasizing talent over cheap drama.
"We’ve tried to winnow away the theatrics of bad auditions, the hysteria of it, and focus on expert coaches looking for great great vocalists. That landed with the audience," he said.