Robert Greenblatt
Credit: NBC

NBC’s entertainment chairman presented a candid portrait about the network’s lackluster fall season, while attempting to lower expectations about whether the network could stage a turnaround over the next several months.

Facing TV critics at the network’s semi-annual press tour event in Pasadena, NBC’s Robert Greenblatt started out his Q&A bluntly: “We had a really bad fall,” he said. “[It was] worse than I had hoped for, but actually about what I expected. People keep saying the only place we have to go is up — which I think is true, but there’s a lot of work to do before we get there.”

Greenblatt, who joined the network last January after running Showtime for years, ran down some factors that led to the network’s weak performance: “We had few strong lead-ins — our most recent scripted hit is six years old [The Office]. Some of our older hits lost cast members.” He also noted the network had behind-the-scenes shifts due to its merger with new parent company Comcast. “But the good news is we now have new owners, they’re investing in our business, not only with financial resources, but with their patience.”

NBC’s new dramas, The Playboy Club and Prime Suspect, were canceled, while two new comedies Up All Night and Whitney have performed modestly in the ratings (and a third, Free Agents, was axed outright). Overall the network has averaged 7.4 million viewers and a 2.5 adult demo rating this season, down 11 percent, and tying ABC for third place (NBC’s mammoth Sunday Night Football often helps keep the network out of fourth).

On the upside, NBC has the biggest event in television, the Super Bowl, coming next month. The network will wisely use the game to lead into the second season premiere of singing competition The Voice.

NBC also hopes to gain some viewers with the upcoming series Smash, which seeks to graduate the primetime musical out of high school with a grown-up drama about a Broadway production. Greenblatt tried to temper expectations there too, however, noting the network is very proud of the series, but added it’s success is not a “make or break” situation. The executive noted that broadcast network executives used to say that one hit can turn around a network, but that’s no longer the case — especially in NBC’s predicament, where there’s so many soft time periods that building momentum becomes difficult.

“We have a long road ahead of us, so bear with us,” he said. “You need four or five shows to start to turn things around — Smash could be one of those.”

But even if Smash flops, “it’s not like we’ll go into receivership,” he said, drawing chuckles. “But we do think it’s special and it can break through the clutter.”

NBC has already ordered five pilots for next season and expects to order more next week — and hasn’t been shy about spending money for projects. In order to rebuild the network, “we should spend more money than Fox or ABC,” he noted.

Also from the session:

— On the popular, yet divisive, Howard Stern being tapped as a judge on summer reality hit America’s Got Talent. “I have headaches about a lot of other things but that’s not one of them. I think he’s going to be a great judge and take it seriously. I don’t think his plan is to usurp the show and make it the Howard Stern Circus.”

— On the short-lived The Playboy Club: “Was Playboy Club too dark? I don’t know. I think it was a just a rejected concept … I know everybody thinks we sat in a room and said, ‘Oh, we have a show like Mad Men, let’s put that on.'”

— On Community survival odds: The fan-favorite comedy will return this season (more on that here).

— On burning off Chuck‘s final season episodes over the holidays: “Did you see the ratings?,” he asked about the show, which was often pulling a mere 1.0 rating in the adult demo on Friday night. “That rapid fanbase going crazy on the net didn’t come to the show. Chuck‘s time had come. Chuck is over, let’s alert the masses.”

— Singer Harry Connick Jr. will do a four-episode arc on Law & Order: SVU.