February 6, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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As we know from the final ratings, last night went as well for NBC as it possibly could have, with the Giants/Patriot Super Bowl (yay, Giants!) becoming the most watched broadcast in television history, boasting an audience of over 111 million people, while the post-game season premiere of THE VOICE was watched by more than 37 million people itself.  
All of this merely served to set the stage for 10PM tonight, when NBC will air a little show called SMASH, of which you may have heard.  It’s the one about some New Yorkers trying to put on a new Broadway musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe.  Produced by (among many others) Steven Spielberg.  Starring Emmy-winner Debra Messing and Oscar-winner Anjelica Huston.  (And “introducing” Katherine McPhee, for those who hadn’t been introduced to her on American Idol.)  With original songs from the composer/lyricisst of Hairspray.  And so on.

Even in a best case scenario, here is what Smash won’t do.   It won’t cure cancer.  It won’t end world hunger, or solve the knotty problems of the Middle East.  It won’t turn around the American economy.  In fact, on its own Smash won’t even turn around NBC’s economy.  Nevertheless, the network’s outside spend on promoting the premiere of Smash has been estimated at $25M, and that doesn’t count the additional tens of millions worth of promotion the show has received on NBCs (and its affiliated networks’) own air. 
So what is Smash likely and unlikely to accomplish?  Well, as of now, Smash is a damn good pilot, with plenty of promise to become a first-rate series.  But much more importantly for NBC, Smash is intended to represent the first big step on the network’s road to rehabilitation, a step back toward the squandered pre-Zucker days when NBC stood for both quality and success.  With virtually every show of the network’s 2011/12 season either dead, on life support, or completely unimpressive (yes, that’s you, Grimm), Smash is the one show that could make this year look like a success for NBC.  On a more personal basis for the head of NBC’s entertainment division, Bob Greenblatt, Smash is also a statement about his taste and his vision–this is a project that Greenblatt had previously developed when he was at Showtime, and it was hand-chosen to make the journey with him to the land of broadcast networks.
Now, the bad news  for NBC is that despite its distinctive high quality (in the pilot, at least), Smash isn’t going to be for everyone.  It’s unapologetically a very New York, very Broadway drama, with lots of of snappy, smart dialogue that assumes you know and care about its subject matter.  Some will call it “insular,” and they won’t be wrong.  Some people will fall in love with the show, and many will have no interest.  (Mitch Metcalf’s prediction is that the latter group will be by far the larger.)
But there’s good news for NBC too.  For one thing, it doesn’t take much to be a hit on NBC these days.  Right now, the highest rated series on the network (all these numbers exclude football) is The Office, which did a 2.8 last week.  And the highest-rated drama is Law & Order: SVU, which hasn’t done better than a 2.4 all season, and recently has been more like a 2.  As much as NBC may want a phenomenal hit, if Smash is anywhere in the 2s, they can mutter “West Wing wasn’t a blockbuster either,” and claim high-quality success.  
Even better, the Monday 10PM timeslot can be had.  It’s dominated now by Hawaii 5-0, with ratings mostly in the high 2s, while Castle is usually around half a ratings point lower.  Smash should have a strong lead-in from The Voice, and if it can pull some viewers from the competition, it can be right in the thick of things.
Here, perhaps, is the most important thing to remember.  Although tonight is hugely important for NBC–if Smash doesn’t get off to a fast start, it’s done for–its rating will only tell us a limited amount.  The numbers over the next 3-4 weeks will be crucial, and will, for all intents and purposes, determine whether NBC can claim (moral, at least) victory when it announces its new schedule in May.  
As another backstage musical once said:  Curtain Up; Light the Lights…

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."