On July 6 at 8 a.m., Bob Greenblatt read the first script for season two of This Is Us. “It’s spectacular. It’s everything you hoped it would be,” the out chairman of NBC Entertainment raved of the acclaimed drama. Afterward, Greenblatt had a string of meetings with the publicity and marketing departments and the head of Creative Artists Agency, before going to the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles to see Heisenberg, a play starring Mary-Louise Parker and Denis Arndt.
In between, Greenblatt met with The Advocate in his office on the Universal Studios Lot. From the floor-to-ceiling windows, one can spot the Universal Studios amusement park in the distance, the head of an Ultrasaurus lifting into view from Jurassic Park: The Ride. The sunny office’s décor includes a portrait of Hudson, Greenblatt’s Doberman Pinscher; and the book for Hairspray Live!, NBC’s 2016 musical that was filmed a brief golf-cart ride away.
Since 2011, Greenblatt has served as chairman of NBC Entertainment, becoming the first (and now only) gay head of a broadcast television network. There, his job is to oversee NBC’s diverse range of programming. Most of his work is about the big-picture.
“I don’t really have to get involved in a lot of the details, unless something is a critical big decision, or a problem, or I just want to get involved,” he says. “I want to get involved in musicals, which I’ll do from soup to nuts.” Compared to the network’s financial side, Greenblatt adds, the creative process has “always been my bigger interest.”
In his career, Greenblatt has helped to make some of America’s favorite shows. At Fox, he developed Melrose Place, The X-Files, Party of Five, and Beverly Hills, 90210. As president of Showtime, he oversaw Queer as Folk and The L Word, and developed shows like Weeds, Dexter, The Tudors, Nurse Jackie, and the United States of Tara.
Greenblatt firmly believes that ideas for new shows should come from the “passions” of writers and producers, as opposed to commissions from the network.
“I’ve always found it useless to come up with ideas ourselves,” says Greenblatt, adding that a network’s most valuable asset is a good “antenna” for creative people.
The antenna is clearly working. This year, NBC broke a dry spell for network television at the Emmy Awards, garnering 64 nominations for shows like This Is Us and Saturday Night Live. For the fourth year in a row, the network has also ranked number one in the key viewer demo (18 to 49 year olds) that networks care so deeply about.
Greenblatt credits the diversity of the network and its shows as key to this success. And NBC has certainly invested in diversity. Since 2000, more than 20 programs have launched that foster LGBT folks and people of color, in front of and behind the camera. Notable success stories include Mindy Kaling, Donald Glover, Julio Torres, and Alan Yang. To encourage talent, there’s an in-house film festival, programs for writers and directors, and a one-of-a-kind incubator for late-night comedy writers.
Greenblatt, who grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s in a Republican family in rural Illinois, knows the importance of visibility firsthand. He didn’t see a major gay character on TV until the 1980s, when Steven Carrington appeared on the ABC primetime soap, Dynasty.
Greenblatt worked in the theater world before beginning his television career at Fox. But it wasn’t until the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, that he came out. “It wasn’t an issue really. I never had to announce it or send out a press release. Hollywood’s always been, ironically, a very accepting world,” says Greenblatt, acknowledging a historic disconnect between the business and what it has projected. “Behind the scenes, it was always a very tolerant, left-leaning business.”
But the struggle to bridge that disconnect has been real. Greenblatt recounts how, in the ‘90s, a gay kiss scene in Melrose Place was censored the moment the men’s lips touched. He also recalls “a lot of raised eyebrows” in the press regarding Queer as Folk, which “shocked the system” when it was released.
For Greenblatt, Will & Grace changed the game on network TV, while real-world political victories like marriage equality convinced him that the U.S. was finally advancing on LGBT rights. At the time, he called the historic Supreme Court ruling “a great day for equality.” However, Greenblatt cites the divisive presidential election and issues like transphobic bathroom bills as evidence that the tide has turned a “little bit backwards.”
“There’s still a lot of deep-seated issues people [have] with acceptance,” explains Greenblatt. Even the entertainment industry hasn’t “come nearly as far as I thought we would from Will & Grace,” whose success, he thought, “would have opened the floodgates” for LGBT roles. He notes how his own network has been guilty of the “Bury Your Gays” epidemic, where TV shows developed a trend of killing off LGBT characters.
“You can always do better. But that said, I think we’re doing a very good job,” says Greenblatt, who feels a responsibility to advance “organic” LGBT representation. “The responsibility I have,” he clarifies, is “to make the world of the television characters look like the world that we live in.” Greenblatt lists past shows like Smash, and new shows like Rise and the Will & Grace revival as among those moving the needle.
“I’m happy to be bringing it back,” he says of Will & Grace, which he is proud to call a “gay show” on network TV. “It’s the show that everybody loves and remembers.” There’s also 2017 twists: conversion therapy will be addressed this season. And Greenblatt would be open to a same-sex marriage — both on the show and in real life.
“I grew up in a time when it was inconceivable,” he says. “I can certainly imagine it now, [although] I’ve never been in a situation where it was an option.”
Today, Greenblatt sees the industry as a far more welcoming place for LGBT actors to come out than when he started. Of closeted actors, he shares, “I’d be surprised to even find any… I don’t think it’s a big issue or like it once was.” However, he admits that view might be “naïve” on his part.
“If they want to hold back, I think it’s their right to do that,” he says.
Regardless, Greenblatt insists the current political climate hasn’t changed the essence of his job.
“We want these shows to appeal to everyone, and hopefully include everyone,” says Greenblatt. Ultimately, he hopes viewers of his shows “are moved or enlightened in some way, and entertained at the same time.”