Analysis: NBC caught between rising "Voice", crashing "Smash"

Reuters News

2/29/2012 5:53:49 PM - Reuters News

By Peter Lauria

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Since their debut four weeks ago, NBC's two most-talked about TV shows have been on opposite trajectories: "The Voice" has soared in the ratings, while viewership for "Smash" has crashed.

Monday's episode of "The Voice," which pits teams of singers selected by music stars Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Blake Shelton and Adam Levine from the band Maroon 5 against each other, garnered 14.9 million viewers, up 49 percent from the same episode in the previous season. That put "The Voice" in a dead heat with long-reining "American Idol" for the title of television's most-watched singing competition.

By contrast, "Smash," a lavishly produced and heavily promoted musical drama about a Broadway show, scored just 6.6 million viewers. While that is a 3 percent increase over the prior week, "Smash" is still down 4.9 million viewers since it debuted on February 6.

The ratings juxtaposition of the two shows illustrates just how difficult it is for Comcast Corp, which bought majority control of NBC Universal from General Electric Co a year ago, to turn around NBC after years of cutbacks. The business environment is also tough, with viewers migrating to cable or increasingly watching shows on demand and via online video services such as Netflix, Hulu.com and Google Inc's YouTube.

In his first interview since the debut of "Smash," NBC's president of programming, Bob Greenblatt, said he was "not at all disappointed in its performance."

"The expectations were never that 'Smash' would be the biggest hit on television," Greenblatt said by telephone. "But two years ago NBC wasn't even programming dramas at 10 p.m. To go from that to a 2.3 rating is a complete success." (A 2.3 rating equates to 6.6 million viewers)

Not everyone agrees with that rosy view, however. Critics note that NBC has already canceled scripted dramas "The Playboy Club," "Free Agents," "The Firm," and "Prime Suspect" this season after weak ratings. Only three new shows developed by the network have survived this season so far: sitcoms "Whitney" and "Up All Night," and drama "Grimm."

"They liked where things started, but they don't like where things are going," an NBC Universal executive, who requested anonymity, said of Comcast's current view of the network.

Comcast plucked Greenblatt, 51, from Showtime in late 2010, after he helped build the pay-TV network owned by CBS Corp into a legitimate contender to HBO by developing shows such as "The L Word," "Weeds," and "Dexter."

But Greenblatt has thus far been unable to replicate that success at NBC. Excluding American football, whose fan base heavily skews the ratings, NBC ranks five-tenths of a ratings point behind Walt Disney Co's ABC on the season in terms of total viewers, far behind the leader CBS and a smaller distance behind runner-up Fox, which is owned by News Corp.

CLIMBING OUT OF THE BASEMENT

Both Comcast and Greenblatt have said that turning around NBC Universal's broadcast fortunes would take years. The network in 2011 reported a 7 percent decline in revenue to $6.3 billion as a result of lower ratings and advertising revenue. Its cable networks -- which are valued by analysts at around $30 billion and include USA, CNBC and Bravo -- generated $8.5 billion in revenue last year, an increase of 10.6 percent.

Greenblatt disputes the idea that Comcast is unhappy with the broadcast network's direction and said the company is less concerned about ratings and more interested in re-establishing NBC as a home for quality content.

Once the most-watched television network, NBC suffered from the departure of hit shows like "Seinfeld" and "Frasier" in the 1990s. That was later compounded by the strict bottom-line focus of previous owner GE. Former NBC boss Jeff Zucker took measures such as programming reality shows, which are cheaper to produce, at the 8 p.m. slot, and abandoning dramas at 10 p.m. He moved the late-night "Jay Leno Show" to the 10 p.m. slot, only to move it back to 11:30 p.m. because it fared poorly.

Greenblatt said that "Smash" demonstrates that NBC is committed to programming high quality dramas again. The show costs roughly $3.5 million per episode.

"They have a real quiet confidence that Bob is going to turn NBC around," said a second NBC Universal executive of Comcast. "Their attitude is 'Smash' doesn't seem to be working, let's move on to the next one and sooner or later, a few will hit."

The slide in viewership for "Smash" has raised questions about whether it will be renewed for a second season. Greenblatt said the answer is most likely yes, but he did not rule out moving the show to a new day or time next season.

The musical drama is about an aspiring Broadway star, played by Katharine McPhee, and her effort to win the starring role in a new musical about Marilyn Monroe

As a young boy growing up in a middle class Midwestern family, Greenblatt was addicted to music theater. His passion for Broadway is part of what drove the development of "Smash."

Critics have used these two facts as evidence that the executive is "not the right jockey" to turn around NBC. They cite "Smash" as having limited appeal to a broad audience. Nearly 70 percent of "Smash's" viewers are females living in urban areas. By comparison, viewers for "The Voice" are 59 percent female.

Supporters dismiss the notion that Greenblatt's tastes are too narrow for broadcast television, noting that when he was at Fox he helped develop such hits as "The X-Files," "King of the Hill," and "Melrose Place," among others.

Greenblatt concedes that the narrower appeal of "Smash" is a concern, but he says looking at its ratings dip compared with "The Voice's" lead-in paints an inaccurate picture.

"The Voice' is such a big show that whatever follows it is naturally going to have a big falloff by comparison," he said. "The hope is that 'Smash' siphons down to a strong core audience of viewers."

TOO RISKY OR NOT RISKY ENOUGH?

This year marks Greenblatt's first full year in control of NBC's development slate. During the fall pilot season -- the time of year when Hollywood's creative community pitches its shows to the networks -- Greenblatt put his stamp on the network by ordering 23 new programs for development, trailing only ABC.

Critics have tried to paint the cost of "Smash" as wasteful spending, but Greenblatt counters that the price is in line with the average cost of one-hour scripted dramas.

"They have had a lot of misses, but it isn't for lack of trying," said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research for Horizon Media. "They are putting up money for quality shows and trying to take the network in a different direction than Zucker did. But they are just in a very deep hole."

Zucker, now helping to produce an upcoming talk show featuring former CBS News anchor Katie Couric, did not respond to email messages for comment.

According to Michael Hirschorn, a former head of programming for VH1 now running his own independent production firm, ISH Entertainment, the problem with "Smash" is not its subject matter but its execution. Conventional wisdom is that "Smash" is a risky bet because it is a musical drama, but Hirschorn argues it is not risky enough.

Pointing to shows like AMC's zombie series "Walking Dead" and Showtime's post-9/11 conspiracy drama "Homeland," Hirschorn said that "Smash" seems "a little bit square and less compelling."

"I would love to see Bob develop for NBC the kind of shows he did on Showtime," Hirschorn added.

Of course, those shows are on cable television, which is free of the restrictions on language, nudity, violence, and drug use that govern broadcast networks like NBC. But Hirschorn argues that broadcast television does not have to break rules to be edgier -- it just has to be original.

Adgate agrees, noting that the risks broadcast television used to take with shows such as "NYPD Blue" and "Roseanne" are now almost exclusively the province of cable television. And the originality of cable television shows like 1960s advertising drama "Mad Men" are being transferred less successfully to broadcast television by. One example is NBC's canceled "Playboy Club."

There is another reason why "The Voice" is working so well for NBC and "Smash" is not, and that has to do with the shift in viewer habits brought on by DVRs and online video.

Viewers of "The Voice" want to tune in each week to see which contestants advance or get eliminated, while those of "Smash" are content to record new episodes and watch them at a different time, date, or all at once after the season ends.

From a financial perspective, each show brings different returns. Reality shows like "The Voice" can be immediately monetized through product placement deals and record label tie-ins, but do not have a shelf life beyond current episodes.

Aside from advertising, dramas such as "Smash" do not offer immediate monetization opportunities, but they can be exploited through syndication, DVD, and on-demand deals over time.

"We're in the midst of a fundamental rebuild of the network, from the staff to what's on the air," Greenblatt said. "It is incumbent upon us to take big swings and invest in the business."

(Reporting by Peter Lauria; Editing by Tiffany Wu and Steve Orlofsky)