Can NBC Create Another Real-Time Sensation With Peter Pan Live?

Robert Greenblatt on what he learned from his Sound of Music gamble

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As NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt went to bed last Dec. 5, after watching his network pull off The Sound of Music Live!, he had no idea what the 18-49 ratings would look like the next morning—but he was preparing for the worst. "I was thinking, 'I'm praying for a 2 rating, because I could defend a 2,'" he told Adweek. "And then I thought, 'Oh God, I could probably spin a 1.7 or 1.8 to probably being almost a 2.' I really was hoping it would be a 2.'"

Instead, Greenblatt awoke the next morning to massive numbers that didn't need spinning. Instead, the special, which starred Carrie Underwood as Maria von Trapp, earned a 4.6 (with 18.5 million total viewers), a number that jumped to 5.6 in live-plus-seven. The rating, which almost tripled Greenblatt's modest hopes, was NBC's best non-sports Thursday night in the 18-49 demo since the ER series finale aired on April 2, 2009.

A year later, he's at it again, with Peter Pan Live!—featuring Allison Williams as Peter Pan and Christopher Walken as Captain Hook—airing Thursday, Dec. 4. He's also developing other live events for the network, including The Music Man in 2015; a Sean Hayes-produced sitcom, Hospitality, that would air live every week; and a live staging of Aaron Sorkin's play A Few Good Men.

Greenblatt spoke with Adweek about last year's big Sound of Music gamble, why it ended up being so successful, his other plans for live TV and which musicals he is—and isn't—considering putting on the air going forward.

Adweek: How tough of a sell was The Sound of Music Live! to your bosses last year?

Greenblatt: I report to [NBCUniversal CEO] Steve Burke, who is the most supportive boss I've ever had. I think one day I told him, "We're going to try this big, live, musical event for the holiday," and he went, "Great." He did unconditionally support it, but left it to us to figure out how much it was going to cost. At one point, I think I said to him, "I have no idea if this is going to sink or swim. It could be a disaster, and it's not inexpensive. So we could be looking at a big, financial miss." And he goes, "That's OK. Let's see what we get." We marshaled everybody in the company to promote it, and we did everything we could think of to make it a big event, and lo and behold—it over delivered!

NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt | Photo: Getty Images

When did you first get an inkling of how big it would be?

The morning of the ratings. I heard a lot of buzz from people that week leading up to it. And you're in the holiday spirit. We did a number at the [Macy's Thanksgiving Day] Parade. We had the tree-lighting special the night before, which Audra McDonald sang "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" on, and I began to hear a lot of chatter. People were saying to me, "I can't wait to see this tonight," and, "I'm going home early, we're going to watch it with the kids." But you don't know if you're living in a bubble and you're just hearing it from people who are going to tell you that because you're doing it.

So you went to bed praying for a 2. What happened the next morning?

I was in New York for the broadcast the night before, and you get the ratings at 7:30 [a.m.], the first 25-30 metered markets. Alan Wurtzel, who is the professor of all things ratings [as president of research and media development for NBCUniversal], gets them a little bit earlier, and he emailed me at about 7:20 and said, "It's early, and we only have 25 markets of 200, but I think there's a 4 in front of this rating." And I said, "A 4? That's not possible. It can't be a 4. Four is an anomaly in these 25 markets, and it's going to go down." I rationalized everything I could to think that that's unbelievable. And then at 7:35 or 7:40, the official number came out of the overnight markets, and it was like a 4.2. Then three hours later, we get the fast nationals, which is most of the rest of the country and is a pretty good gauge about what it's going to be. Right before that, which is about 11 [a.m.], he emailed me and said, "I think it's a 4.6 or a 4.7!" Which just means that the more you add of the smaller markets, people were watching. And it ended up being a 4.6, and almost 19 million total viewers.

Why did the show resonate with such a huge audience? 

I thought, "Wow, we struck a chord, made it an event. It was the holiday, it's a classic show, everyone knows the songs." The key to it was, kids and adults had to both get on board. And all the rest of that weekend, people told me that they'd crawled into bed with their kids and watched it together. It was so old fashioned.

Just like when The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz used to air once a year on TV.

Yeah. I used to watch those movies, too!

You're developing other live specials. Would those also air during the holidays?

No, not necessarily. I don't think we can ask the audience to commit to two of those within a few weeks.

Sound of Music seemed like the perfect musical that would appeal to both kids and adults. There are only a finite number of those shows. You already picked up Music Man, and Fox announced it is doing Grease Live.

Well, we'll see if they pull that off. I haven't heard anything more about it. I think there's a finite number, and I don't know what that is yet, but there's Oliver and there's The Wiz, there's The King and I, which has kids in it. I think one of the tricks is that you want young people to feel represented. We wouldn't be doing a [Stephen] Sondheim show or something like that. But there's some more Rodgers and Hammerstein, there's some Lerner and Loewe, there's a bunch of shows.

How about something like Wizard of Oz, which would replicate the once-a-year airings of Sound of Music we talked about?

The tricky thing, and we learned it on Sound of Music, which we knew was going to be there: when you step into the hallowed ground of those movies that you adore. I'm not sure yet—and I may change this thinking—that I want to go into the Judy Garland, Wizard of Oz territory. Maybe, because there's been some stage shows over the years that have been successful, but we've talked about a bunch of other shows that we may option.

And going forward, you would still do it once a year, during the holiday season?

I'm not saying anything is etched in stone, because if a big movie star came to us and said, "I want to do this musical, but it would have to be May or March," we'd consider that. It's tricky casting these things, because once you set a broadcast date, you can only cast people who are available at that point. For Peter Pan, I couldn't cast anybody from a television series who's in production in the fall, and that's a lot of people. So anything's possible.

So what are your ratings expectations this year for Peter Pan Live?

I don't even know if we can replicate Sound of Music again. We'll see what happens.

It sounds like you're going to be exactly in the same position you were in last year, thinking about how you could justify a 2 rating.

Yes! "How low did we go?"

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV/Media Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.