NEW YORK During NBCs slow slide to near-irrelevancy in prime time during the last decade, a succession of entertainment executives sat in boardrooms plotting comeback moves that didnt work.
Its still early, but NBC seems finally to have hit upon a plan that is moving things in the right direction. New entertainment chief Bob Greenblatts baby steps strategy of using the successful competition The Voice as its centerpiece has helped NBC stand as the only one of the four big broadcasters to have a larger prime-time audience than it had last fall.
In the 18-to-49-year-old demographic that NBC targets, the network has made a startling move from fourth place to first, winning the first four weeks of the season for the first time since 2002. Among all viewers, it ranks third behind CBS and ABC.
They needed a hit show to ignite the network, said Marc Berman, an analyst with TV Media Insight, and now they have it.
Greenblatt, who came to NBC after running Showtime, said he understands the temptation of thinking all of a networks problems can be solved at once. Since that almost never happens, he brought a lesson he learned from cable.
He decided to set one or two priorities and put all of the networks attention on achieving them. In this case, the plan was to build out from NBCs most successful franchise, the Sunday night football game, and improve the nights right after it.
NBC launched its first-ever fall version of The Voice and stretched it to two nights a week Monday and Tuesday. Greenblatt didnt want to compete directly with Foxs The X Factor later in the week, and believed ABCs competing Dancing With the Stars was an aging franchise with a greying audience.
The Voice has rewarded his confidence and, just as importantly, served as a launching pad for new shows that followed it on the schedule, the drama Revolution on Monday and Matthew Perry comedy Go On on Tuesday.
Through four weeks, The Voice has averaged 14.1 million viewers on Monday night, more than double what The Sing Off had in the time slot last year, according to the Nielsen company. Revolution has averaged 11.9 million viewers, numbers that include some DVR playback. The Playboy Club was a high-profile bust at the same time last year, getting 3.5 million viewers for its third and final episode.
NBCs average in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic on Tuesdays is up 42 percent from 2011, Nielsen said.
The story is different on Wednesday and Thursday, where NBC is down from last year. In fact, Thursday night NBCs former must-see TV night is down 32 percent in the demo compared to a year ago, when it wasnt doing well in the first place.
Thats not entirely unexpected, though, because it wasnt NBCs focus.
The tendency is to look at the whole week and say, oh, were going to fix this and oh, were going to fix that on another night, Greenblatt said. You end up spreading out your assets and ultimately your ability to do anything significant. We were really disciplined and diligent this year and said, lets try to do one or two things extraordinarily well and let everything else sort of be what it is at the moment.
NBC advertised its new shows during the Olympics and even ran sneak previews of Go On, Revolution and Animal Practice. True to the nature of TVs law of averages, the limp Animal Practice has already been canceled.
Rather than wait for the traditional start of the TV season in the last week of September, NBC started The Voice and its new shows a week or two earlier to get people in the habit of watching them.
Greenblatts ultimate goal is to broaden NBCs appeal. The networks Thursday night comedies probably have more critical plaudits (and Emmy Awards, in the case of 30 Rock) than they have viewers.
Hes trying to make comedies that people will watch, said Bill Gorman, co-founder of the web site TV By the Numbers, as opposed to comedies like Community and 30 Rock that have small, rabid fans bases but not a lot of people watching them.
Two nights dont make a complete turnaround, though. Greenblatt recognizes he has challenges ahead of him. Football leaves a hole in NBCs schedule when the NFL season ends this winter. The Voice ends its cycle in December and doesnt return until March. Then, popular cast members Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green will be missing.
Greenblatt will face a decision that is always vexing for TV executives: Do you move successful new shows to try and seed other nights, or does that put them at risk of losing their audience? Go On is an interesting test. NBC could move it to Thursday, and put Perry next to a new comedy starring Michael J. Fox that is expected to start next fall, and completely restructure that night. But that presumes that Perrys fans will follow him.
Greenblatt said NBC has a lot of work to do, both in programming and in staffing. Its really a from-the-ground-up rebuild, he said.
Its a lot of hard work, he said. Weve been in a bad place for much of that, so its nice to look around in our staff meetings and say its possible to change the fate. There are days when you think it isnt possible. But its really nice to get some validation that the strategy works. When you have some good shows, that will change all. So were feeling a lot better than we were.