NBC remains unclear on future of ‘Community’ comedy series

January 6, 2012

“I’d like to get right to it: We had a really bad fall — worse than I’d hoped for, but about what I expected,” NBC entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt said, extinguishing any hope that there might be some fiery exchange about NBC’s lousy performance this season at Winter TV Press Tour 2012.

He needn’t have bothered; The Reporters Who Cover Television attending the Tour in Pasadena represent about 60 percent of the Rabid Fans of “Community” Club — and an additional 20 percent of the club are back at the reporters’ company HQs.

So once Greenblatt said he wanted to make it very clear that “Community” has not been canceled — as some have speculated after it was taken off the schedule — they curled up peacefully at his feet like a litter of puppies for the rest of his Q&A session.

Still, it didn’t hurt that he tossed them some verbal kibble: “I really appreciate how respectful you have been toward me personally and my staff,” he said.

The puppies wagged their tails.

Most of the rest of his time onstage, at the Langham hotel in Pasadena, was spent Seriously Managing Expectations for the rest of the television season.

“People say the only place we have to go is up . . . but there’s a lot of work to do before we get there,” Greenblatt said.

On the other hand, if he were still running programming at the pay-cable network Showtime, he said wistfully, they’d be calling him the season’s “genius” for launching the upcoming musical drama series “Smash,” the Christina Applegate comedy “Up All Night,” the Whitney Cummings sitcom “Whitney” and even the now-canceled cop drama “Prime Suspect.”

The reporters nodded in agreement, except when he mentioned “Whitney.” They hate that one, no matter whether it’s on cable or broadcast.

At Showtime, Greenblatt said, “Prime Suspect” would have been picked up and renewed after the third episode and declared a hit — and it would be in production for three or four seasons.

Realizing he sounded maybe a shade too regretful, Greenblatt joshed: “The subhead of my talk is, ‘The Beauty of Cable.’ ”

Then, he joked, “I’m done with cable — it’s a dying business and ruining the culture of America!”

After that, it was back to managing expectations:

NBC had few strong lead-ins off of which to launch new series. “Our most recent scripted hit is six years old,” he said of “The Office.”

He was even tepid about the upcoming “Smash” — a.k.a. “Glee” for adults, a.k.a. The Season’s Most Talked About New Series.

“I think ‘Smash’ is going to be very important to us. I don’t believe it’s a make-or-break kind of show for us,” he said. “We’re excited about what it could do.”

But, he hastened to add, it no longer takes just one hit series to turn around a network. Now, he said, “you need four or five shows to turn things around. I hope ‘Smash’ is one of those shows.”

But, “if it’s not, it’s not like we’re going to go into receivership,” he said.

Reporters giggled.

One reporter screwed up the courage to ask whether Greenblatt thought he’d spent too much money developing this season’s crop of new shows, given NBC’s ratings performance in the fall.

“If we came up with ‘Modern Family,’ we could have spent twice as much and been happy,” he responded.

Broadcast TV programming, he said, is “like gambling. You don’t have any idea, in spite of how smart we all think we are. . . . You don’t know what is going to work and what isn’t. Being in the position we’re in — complete rebuilding mode — it makes a lot of sense we should spend more money than Fox or CBS.”

The only time reporters growled a little during Greenblatt’s Q&A was when someone asked whether the NBC chief could promise that “Community” would be back for another season this fall. Greenblatt said that it was a “really hard question to answer” and that he’d have to look at what NBC’s pilot season yielded and what NBC’s scheduling needs will be. He added that he would make that decision closer to May, when the broadcast networks unveil next season’s prime-time schedules to advertisers.

Greenblatt also devoted a certain amount of time to clearing up other, non-“Community” inaccuracies about NBC that have been reported in the press.

Ryan Seacrest is not about to replace Matt Lauer on the “Today” show, Greenblatt said, and he noted that the “American Idol” host is a “big asset” for NBC parent Comcast, which also owns E! Entertainment.

And when a Big Asset’s contract is up, people in important positions at a company get together to talk to the Big Asset about what he’d like to be doing under his next contract. “We’d love to keep Ryan Seacrest in the family,” he said, throwing out the idea that Seacrest might instead become The New Barbara Walters — doing celebrity-interview specials that would run in prime time — and on NBC instead of ABC.

But, Greenblatt reiterated, “it is our hope and belief Matt will stay beyond his contract.” Lauer’s contract reportedly expires at the end of the year.

To recap: NBC wants to keep Lauer on “Today” and to keep Seacrest in the family.

And Mariska Hargitay is not leaving “Law & Order: SVU,” Greenblatt said. They gave her a break because she adopted a child. But she will be back — and this spring, they are giving her character her very first love interest!

At which point, Greenblatt instructed the reporters to watch a pre-taped bit in which Mariska chatted with — oh look, it’s Harry Connick Jr., the go-to love-interest ratings generator on NBC’s old “Will & Grace”!

Harry said that he’s going to play an assistant district attorney and that he’s really excited to get to play “educated” again.

Harry and Mariska attempted to demonstrate chemistry with some overly orchestrated banter — not so convincing — then they told the reporters they had to go rehearse their “Sexy Time Scene.”

“God bless — happy new year!” Mariska trilled.

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