The Return of Bob Greenblatt?

Bob Greenblatt
Photo: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic
Matthew Belloni
August 12, 2022

Have you read this Bob Greenblatt book? Normally, when a Hollywood executive is as prolific and impactful as Greenblatt and decides to write a memoir, there would be months of anticipation, industry gossip, and speculation about whether that incident or her blowup would be included. For Greenblatt’s big tell-all, titled The Rockford Files: Epiphanies in Show Business (he’s from Rockford, Illinois), there’s been none of that. He doesn’t even have a publisher.

Instead, the former chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment and Direct-to-Consumer—and before that the top programmer at both NBC and Showtime, with successful producing stints in TV and Broadway in between—self-published the 414-page book and has been quietly mailing hardback copies to friends and former colleagues. It made its way to me, so I read it last weekend.

No surprise for those who know Bob: it’s a breezy, earnest, name-droppy stroll through the past 30 years of television, heavy on nice compliments about his friends and told via chapters on hits like Six Feet Under (he produced), Weeds (he greenlit), and The Voice (he oversaw), all written from the perspective of a small-town theater geek who ended up running a bunch of TV networks. Those looking for swipes at AT&T over his firing in August 2020, just 18 months into his tenure at WarnerMedia, or some of the snark you might get from Greenblatt over lunch or drinks, will be disappointed—no, he doesn’t go there (maybe the many millions of dollars he was paid to go away influenced that decision). But he does call out former ABC head Stu Bloomberg for the implicit racism in banishing The Hughleys, a promising Black-driven sitcom Greenblatt produced with partner David Janollari, to a Friday night graveyard. And he tells a few fun stories, albeit self-serving ones, like how, when he was an executive at Fox, he threatened to quit in a meeting that Rupert Murdoch attended unless Party of Five was renewed for a second season (it was… but with just 13 episodes). And how he fought endlessly with Les Moonves over whether to greenlight the racy Shameless. (Les relented when Greenblatt convinced William H. Macy to star.) And how he pitched network head Peter Chernin The X-Files in the hallway of the Fox commissary because he knew Chernin would be distracted and more likely to say yes. (It worked.)    

I was curious why Greenblatt would do a career-retrospective memoir now. After all, he’s still an active producer, with a Lionsgate deal, a Weeds reboot with Mary Louise Parker that will be set in Copenhagen, and a Broadway production of his pet NBC show Smash that will likely star Megan Hilty (“We just did our first reading,” he said). So I called him earlier this week. He was just back from a cruise in the Mediterranean and was ready to talk about the book and his various former employers. “David Janollari and I used to joke when something happened that we would ‘put it in the book,’” he told me. “And then I realized during Covid, when I had time on my hands, that I just need to write the book!”

Indeed, Greenblatt is kinda like the Where’s Waldo of the Peak TV era, running multiple networks during transformational times. So, I had to ask, what does he think of all the corporate drama at Warners both during and after he left? “AT&T was not the company to be the engine behind a global streaming company,” he said, chuckling. But, he added of former C.E.O. Jason Kilar’s controversial all-in-on-streaming strategy, “I was actually a proponent of putting the movies on HBO Max as soon as we could. We were trying to get a consensus in the business in figuring out how to do that. Then I left, and suddenly it was a done deal [that all the 2021 movies would go to Max concurrent with theaters] without talking to anyone. A consensus should have been built before doing it, but it helped HBO Max in that first year. It was just not executed in the best way.”

Greenblatt, who, in his short, hectic time there, was charged with launching HBO Max—and, with Kevin Reilly, executing its content strategy in a short window that was interrupted by Covid—said he’s annoyed when people say the Max launch was “rocky.” “It wasn’t disappointing in terms of subscriber numbers,” he said. “We didn’t have that Friends reunion, or Flight Attendant, and we didn’t have time to get a Mandalorian ready—we didn’t have a marquee show. And it was May 2020, the worst time in the world. But look at it now. It’s a success story. We just didn’t have enough time. If we had started planning it 18 months earlier, it would have been different. But AT&T couldn’t fight the government any faster than it did. And [AT&T C.E.O. John] Stankey promised the AT&T board he was going to do it.”

Greenblatt also said he was surprised when Stankey pulled the plug on WarnerMedia, spinning the whole thing off to Discovery under C.E.O. David Zaslav. “Financially, they were very worried about how much we had to spend to launch [HBO Max]. It was a real problem,” he said. “But I thought they would give it a few years to get on its feet. Things were moving in the right direction. There was growth, and the programming was coming online. And then suddenly it was, ‘Let’s pull the rug and get out.’” When I asked whether it’s impossible for Zaslav or any executive to balance the new urge to spend less on streaming while continuing to spur growth, he said, “It just might be. But if anyone can do it, it’s the HBO side of things. That’s what they’ve always done. That company was hugely profitable by doing just a handful of shows. There was never a volume strategy. We tried to apply that to the HBO Max side. But can you keep 150 million subscribers happy month to month with that strategy?”

That’s the question, and it’s one that all the major media companies are struggling to answer, including Paramount Global and NBCUniversal, two of Greenblatt’s former employers. Would he keep Showtime separate or combine it with Paramount+ and BET+? “I would absolutely combine it,” he said. “Put all that programming together. I know it’s not as easy as just saying that. You have to go to all the MVPDs and get them on board, but we did that at HBO. But why shouldn’t Paramount and Showtime and MTV and TV Land all be under one big umbrella?”

It does make sense, as does Comcast figuring out what the heck to do with Peacock. “I think it’s hard to be half in it,” he said of the Comcast strategy. “I don’t mean you have to spend $15 billion a year on content. But if you’re in it, you’re in it, and you figure out how to put all that content into one service or you bundle it like Hulu and Disney+. You have to go all in.”

Greenblatt ends Rockford Files with the line “and now for my next chapter…,” and the more we talked, the more it seemed to me that, career-spanning memoir or not, he is ready for another executive job. He said he’s open, but he’d love a role that enabled him to say yes to creatives he respects without dealing with the corporate re-orgs and strategy shifts that have defined the past decade in the TV business. “It’d be ideal if I didn’t have any of that,” he joked.