TV Upfront

NBC Puts on a Show in Return to Radio City

Bob Greenblatt Tickles the Ivories in Upfront Pitch

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NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt and Dolly Parton perform at NBC's upfront presentation on May 11, 2015.
NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt and Dolly Parton perform at NBC's upfront presentation on May 11, 2015. Credit: Paul Drinkwater/NBC
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NBC on Monday morning kicked off broadcast TV's Upfront Week in style, returning its annual pitch to Radio City Music Hall and giving buyers their first look at Neil Patrick Harris's new variety show ... with a little help from an unsuspecting MediaVest exec.

Following the standard blitz of clips from NBC's new fall shows, Mr. Harris gave advertisers a good idea of what he has cooking with his new variety show, "Best Time Ever." Grabbing the mic and heading into the audience, the entertainer stopped at an aisle seat to wish MediaVest's Melissa Shapiro a happy birthday before going on to note that he was a little miffed at her not remembering their recent lunch together.

Mr. Harris went on to reveal that he'd hatched a scheme with NBC ad sales chief Linda Yaccarino that involved hidden cameras, a fake beard for NBC Broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert and a little tequila. All of which helped evoke Mr. Harris's characterization of his show as a "fun, high-energy grab bag," while allowing buyers and sellers to feel a little sense of chumminess before the (sometimes fractious) negotiations begin.

Denied the cozy post-"Voice" slot at 9 p.m. on Tuesday nights, which went instead to the new medical drama "Heartbreaker," "Best Time Ever" will follow at 10 p.m. While it's uncertain what competition NPH will face in the hour (ABC's "Forever" has been canceled and there's no guarantee that CBS will leave "Person of Interest" in that space), the host will have 10 weeks in which to draw a crowd.

Earlier in the presentation, NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt acknowledged that the Peacock this season had "some ups and downs," before reminding buyers that NBC would finish No. 1 in the 18-49 demo for the second straight year. He also said that while the network undoubtedly enjoyed a lift from Super Bowl XLIX, NBC had a lot of organic GRPs as well. ("We had the Super Bowl three years ago and we still finished tied for last place," Mr. Greenblatt pointed out.)

NBC's biggest trouble spots remain the entirety of its post-NFL Sunday night lineup and two-thirds of Thursday night. While "The Voice" and "The Blacklist" have helped pull NBC out of what was a 10-year slump, there is no question that Mr. Greenblatt faces a certain sense of urgency. If he's to stick around past 2017, those nights have to see a significant turnaround.

And the 2015-16 development slate had better perform a hell of a lot better than this season's, which delivered just one renewal ("The Mysteries of Laura"). Jimmy Fallon slyly alluded to some of NBC's more recent woes when he greeted Mr. Greenblatt thusly: "We're all going to miss you, buddy. You had a good run."

This morning's show underscored the, well, unique way Mr. Greenblatt approaches his job as network capo. Prior to today, has any broadcast higher-up ever accompanied Dolly Parton on a piano while she belted out "I Will Always Love You"? That's a rhetorical question, naturally, but try picturing Les Moonves doing the same thing but with, say, L.L. Cool J. You can't, because such a thing is literally impossible for the mind to comprehend.

Ms. Parton has signed on to develop TV movies based on her catalogue of original songs, and her "Coat of Many Colors" sounds like it wouldn't be out of place on the Hallmark Channel. But that's another area in which Mr. Greenblatt stands out from his peers -- in an era marked by radical fragmentation, he wants to program events that draw entire families.

Sometimes, as with the case of NBC's live airing of "The Sound of Music," it works. And Mr. Greenblatt is betting that the next special, a revival of the Broadway musical "The Wiz," will have families singing in the aisles, or at least on their sofas.

While most of the top NBC divisions got their due (sports was represented by "Sunday Night Football," Nascar and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, while Mr. Fallon kept the flag flying for late night), NBC News was conspicuously absent. With three months to go before his suspension is set to be lifted, Brian Williams remains persona non grata, and a quick turn from his replacement Lester Holt may have brought up questions that NBC doesn't necessarily want asked. As such, any marketplace-related talk about the "Today" show, "NBC Nightly News," "Dateline" and "Meet the Press" will take place in closed meetings with clients and buyers.

A note about the venue. A year after sending buyers and clients on a forced march to the wilds of the West Side and the Javits Center, NBC returned to the grand music hall across the street from its headquarters at 30 Rock. Last year, Seth Meyers joked about how Javits is conveniently located in "New York's historic stabbing district," and while that may have been a tiny bit hyperbolic, that the week didn't begin with a schlepp to Westies territory was much appreciated.