At NBC executive session, cable-broadcast divide looms large

Los Angeles TimesJuly 13, 2014 

— As the top-rated network in the 18-to-49 demographic for the first time in a decade, an Olympics-buoyed NBC had plenty to brag about Sunday at the Television Critics Association summer press tour.

But even with its considerable successes, the network's top executives - NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt, President Jennifer Salke and the president of alternative and late night programming, Paul Telegdy - spent plenty of time contending with the specter of cable television and other emerging outlets.

Greenblatt, who ran Showtime before moving to NBC, emphasized the demands of developing and scheduling "15 to 20 shows a year" versus the more limited slate of a cable network.

"You have to love the medium. If you don't really want to be in the broadcast TV landscape, you shouldn't be," he said. "The volume is the killer."

The broadcast-cable divide was underscored by the timing of the panel, which took place just three days after the announcement of the Emmy nominations, where once again the legacy broadcasters found themselves edged out of the major categories in favor of outlets such as HBO, FX and Netflix.

The increasing dominance of cable at the Emmys has prompted some to suggest separate categories for broadcast series, which typically air 22 episodes a season, compared to a dozen or fewer for cable programs

NBC racked up 46 Emmy nominations, enough to put it in third place, but the network's haul was dwarfed by perennial leader HBO, with 99, and nearly matched by FX, with 45. James Spader, star of NBC's freshman hit "The Blacklist," was also shut out of the drama actor category, one of the day's many perceived snubs.

"I'm not going to grouse about the Emmys," Greenblatt said, though he joked that perhaps the Cable ACE Awards ought to be revived.

While he expressed skepticism that Emmys have any real effect on viewership, Greenblatt acknowledged that "emotionally, we all care" about awards. "Of course, you want that validation."

Greenblatt also underscored the difficulty of finding viewers for the kinds of creatively risky shows that would otherwise thrive on cable.

" 'Hannibal' is one of the best shows we have creatively and one of the best reviewed shows we've had since I've been here, and we still struggle to find an audience for it," he said of the drama, which averages about 2.5 million viewers in its Friday-night time slot.

"If this were on a cable network, the small audience wouldn't matter, and it would be deemed more successful than it is on our network. And I don't know why 5 or 8 million won't watch 'Hannibal' on a broadcast network. ... The minute you try to do something that is jarring and subversive and frightening, it gets into that territory where you start to peel away the mass audience."

In a later panel Sunday morning about the Emmys, Television Academy Chairman and Chief Executive Bruce Rosenblum fielded questions about changing awards to accommodate the increased competition. The explosion in production of television programming has brought with it a flood of new entries. Executives said compared to five years ago, the Emmys received 40 percent more drama and 60 percent more comedies seeking award consideration.

The cable versus network issue also came up in discussion of "The Michael J. Fox Show," which was a heavily hyped disappointment for NBC this past season, part of a failed bid to revive its comedy dominance on Thursday nights.

"I'd love to have the luxury of not worrying what the ratings were, like in cable," Greenblatt said of the sitcom.

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