The decline of NBC over the past seven years has been spectacular to behold. Friends ended its glorious run, and The Biggest Loser was born. Its young producer, Ben Silverman, was named co-chairman. He threw extravagant parties as ratings dropped. CEO Jeff Zucker moved The Tonight Show into tomorrow. It was the most embarrassing management gaffe in the short history of television.
Soon NBC reliably placed fourth. Provider giant Comcast circled and Nikki Finke cackled as she blogged about Mr. Zucker’s office crying spells. 30 Rock was there all along, to mock each debacle with brutal transparency. It was the only Must See TV left.
Now that the regulatory filings have been stamped and Comcast has taken over, one would expect the real mayhem to begin. Instead, a hush has settled over the network of Johnny Carson, SNL and Seinfeld. Why the sudden calm at a network that was so recently an entertainment reporter’s dream?
It’s due, in part, to the new chief of programming, former Showtime head Robert Greenblatt. Described by former colleagues as a humble theater nerd with a keen eye and a sweet manner, Mr. Greenblatt is not the loudest voice in the entertainment business, but for now he has its patient and rapt attention.
MR. GREENBLATT, 50, was raised middle class in Rockford, Ill., and as an undergraduate studied theater management at the University of Illinois. It’s a respected program (Ang Lee is an alum) that attracts tradition-minded, hardworking, ambitious people–the kind of Midwesterners who depart for the coasts with something to prove.
“He knew what he wanted to do,” said Mr. Greenblatt’s former professor Robert Graves, now dean of the Fine and Applied Arts department.
In the classroom, Mr. Greenblatt tore apart Shakespeare and the Greek playwrights–he especially excelled at analyzing dramatic structure–but his main focus was hands-on technical training. When he wasn’t wrangling his peers in student productions, he helped manage the professional shows that toured through the university performing arts center.
“When you’re a theater manager, you have temperamental artists around you,” said Mr. Graves, “but Bob was even-tempered, organized and unflappable. Everyone liked him.”
After earning an M.A. in arts administration at the University of Wisconsin, Mr. Greenblatt headed for Hollywood and enrolled in one of its most prestigious welcome wagons, the Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California. The program teaches directing, screenwriting, and production, and perhaps more important, it inducts its graduates into the “Stark mafia,” an informal network of industry .
The “Starkie” mark landed Mr. Greenblatt an internship with Sara Colleton, who was producing Big and Working Girl at the time and had the young Mr. Greenblatt research comic books for potential movie ideas. Impressed by his work and charmed by his wit, Ms. Colleton remained a close ally as Mr. Greenblatt’s career took off. Decades later, Ms. Colleton knew he would be perfect for Dexter, the psycho thriller she created whose climactic season finales broke Showtime’s ratings records.
During the 1990s, Mr. Greenblatt worked his way up the corporate ladder at Fox, eventually heading entertainment, before hanging his own shingle in 1998, partnering in a new production company with Warner Brothers boss David Janollari.
“Our vision was to create a safe haven for writers and creative talent to thrive without all the politics and agendas of the big studio systems,” Mr. Janollari told The Observer. Their most successful collaboration was Six Feet Under; the decorated HBO series secured Mr. Greenblatt’s reputation as a master of content that confronts death, sex and family turmoil with candor and humor.
His style was crucial to the development of Showtime’s signature programming, like The Tudors, Weeds and The United States of Tara; during his tenure, the network’s subscriber base rose from 12 million to 19.5 million.
“Bob operates from story and theme,” Ms. Colleton told The Observer. “Talent wants to work with him on every level.” On Dexter, he attended every casting and table read, and gave notes on each draft of scripts that impressed even the suit-skeptical screenwriters.
Unlike the stereotypically fulsome industry types, Mr. Greenblatt retains his Midwestern sincerity.
“He does not flinch from making the hard decision and delivering bad news,” Ms. Colleton said. Producers weary from the takeover will be grateful for it.