NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin says the network’s messy decision to dump the critically admired drama "Southland" should not be taken as a sign the Peacock is getting out of the quality drama business.
In an interview with TheWrap, a candid Gaspin took full responsibility for the controversial cancellation and tried to set the record straight about why — and how — NBC decided to reverse course on the series.
And in a significant directional shift, Gaspin also signaled the network was moving away from NBC U’s previously expressed philosophy of "managing for margin."
"I have been going around town and talking to agencies and talking to producers and trying to make myself visible to say that, while we think we need to produce economically, the goal is not to manage for margins," Gaspin told TheWrap. "It is to put the best possible programs we can on the air."
And while NBC’s overall programming budget may have shrunk, "Our development dollars have not changed one bit from five years ago, even though we have many less hours to develop for," Gaspin said. "Our goal is to produce good shows that get whatever’s considered good ratings today."
Gaspin’s statement is a direct repudiation of former NBC Entertainment co-chair Ben Silverman, who frequently cited the "managing for margin" mantra and used it to justify many of the Peacock’s programming decisions, including NBC’s replacing 10 p.m. dramas with "The Jay Leno Show."
In a 2008 interview with reporter Michelle Greppi, then of TelevisionWeek, NBC U Chief Executive Officer Jeff Zucker also made it clear NBC was more concerned with its overall profitability than with getting big Nielsen numbers. "We’re managing for margin, not for ratings," he said at the time.
Gaspin, an executive well-known for his fierce competitive streak, clearly feels NBC needs to get back in the ratings game. And he seems willing to spend the dollars to do so: NBC Entertainment chief Angela Bromstad has not been stingy in recent weeks when it comes to stepping up for projects she wants.
"We made a premium deal for J.J. Abrams," Gaspin noted. "We brought Bruckheimer. We’re doing ‘Prime Suspect.’ We’re redoing ‘The Rockford Files.’ We’ve got a lot of good quality dramas in development."
And yet, NBC has been taking a bashing in the mainstream media and among the Twitteratti for its surprise move earlier this month to kill John Wells‘ "Southland" before its second season could even premiere.
The conventional wisdom was that NBC was looking to cut costs and wanted to back out of the big-bucks business of big-time network scripted programming.
Gaspin denies this and says the decision was about two things: maintaining some semblance of stability with the NBC lineup, and a recognition of the network’s current status in the ratings.
"I’ve been talking to the team about trying … to not make any rash decisions and doing our best to satisfy the viewer (by) not constantly moving product around," Gaspin said. "It’s getting more and more difficult for viewers to find where their shows are when they get moved."
Gaspin says that as the season got under way, "We saw that one of our time periods we weren’t having much trouble with was Fridays at 9. ‘Dateline’ was doing quite well."
The executive says all signs pointed to "Southland" doing worse in the Friday timeslot than "Dateline."
"We would likely take a hit in the ratings, and that was something I didn’t want to see happen," he said, particularly with so many other weak spots in the NBC lineup.
Gaspin saw a scenario in which NBC spent a lot of time and money to relaunch "Southland," only to be forced to pull the show a few weeks after its return.
"The whole team debated this. It was a very hard decision for us," Gaspin added. "But in the end, the idea of putting something on in order to pull it off a couple weeks later — I just didn’t want to see that happen. I just couldn’t do it."
At first, NBC considered holding back "Southland" for later in the season or putting it in another, less successful timeslot. But then Gaspin and other executives began debating the overall tone of the show — and they came to the conclusion that the series wasn’t right for NBC.
"My belief is that dark and grim in general is not the tone I want to see NBC take right now in our development and in our schedule," Gaspin said. "It doesn’t mean it can’t be intense. It doesn’t mean it can’t be dramatic. But dark and grim and real, I think, is not what the audience for broadcast television is looking for right now.
"The way we need to rebuild NBC is with broad, somewhat blue-sky, somewhat more optimistic programming. And unfortunately a show like ‘Southland’ didn’t fit that bill."
There’s been buzz that one reason NBC reversed course on "Southland" was because the show became "darker" between seasons one and two. There have been hints that Peacock executives were frustrated because producers didn’t seem to be taking their notes advising a less stern tone.
Gaspin wouldn’t directly confirm or deny that notion, but he did make it clear that any such disagreements were not fundamental to the decision to back out of the project.
"If any of that happened, it was separate and apart from any of the conversations I had with Angela and her team (about ‘Southland’)," Gaspin said. "She might have had those conversations. But I’m not aware of them."
Critics, of course, have been fuming over the idea that struggling NBC doesn’t have room for a show like "Southland," particularly when the network’s freshman drama crop has failed to produce any breakouts.
But Gaspin implied it’s simplistic to think that just because a show is good means it can work on a network, particularly one with few pillars of strength.
"Sometimes in the process of rebuilding you have to tear a little bit down," Gaspin said. "There’s no question ‘Southland’ is a very traditional NBC drama. We’ve had shows like it in the past that have worked very well for us. But I think the audience has shifted right now. They might shift back. We might be able to have a show like this on our schedule again in two years. But we need to rebuild the schedule a little bit before we can handle a show that might take time to build an audience."
And in fairness, it’s not as if NBC didn’t give "Southland" a decent shot out of the gate. The show’s first batch of episodes was heavily promoted and slotted in NBC’s historic 10 p.m. Thursday timeslot. It premiered decently, with a 3.2 rating in adults 18-49, but sank as low as a 1.7 rating near the end of its run.
"If there was a better track record, I think I probably could have been convinced otherwise," Gaspin said. "I had to use the information that was available to me."
At least one media outlet has tried to peg the "Southland" mess as a byproduct of the Silverman era. But while the show was first developed under Silverman’s watch, NBC Entertainment chief Angela Bromstad — keen on finding something to salvage from a disastrous development season she inherited — embraced the finished product, opting to slot "Southland" in the high-profile 10 p.m. Thursday timeslot being vacated by "ER" and choosing to order a second season.
"I’m not blaming this on Ben. Ben had nothing to do with this," Gaspin said.
While the "Southland" situation has forced Gaspin to speak out about his strategy for the network, the executive said he plans to shut up about his plans for the Peacock.
"I hope over time we will be able to prove that we are trying to bring NBC back to greatness," he said. "But you know what? I’m gonna do it a little more under the radar. I’m going to be a little more quiet about our strategy. And I’m not gonna make proclamations about what we’re doing.
"I will explain when asked why we made certain decisions," he added, referring to TheWrap’s queries about "Southland’s’ demise. "But I’m trying not to program our network in an open forum."
Gaspin and Bromstad are expected to make their next key moves to boost NBC’s fortunes within the next few days, when the network will decide the short-term fates of newcomers such as "Mercy," "Community," "Parks and Recreation" and "Trauma."