In the 1980s, it was easy for the broadcast networks to make a lot of money, and all three did. Brandon Tartikoff and I listened to former NBC chief Grant Tinker and figured out how to respect the audience and give them quality shows. It worked, and NBC set historical benchmarks for broadcast success.
It was into this environment that Bob Wright arrived in 1986, telling us it was all going to end. He looked us in the eye and said, “Life as you know it at the [now four] networks will no longer be a walk in the park. Households will quickly go from 10 channel choices to 50 and then 100.” Talk about buzz kill.
Like Alf, Bob was from another planet. But what he predicted came true. I believe that the network's resurgence in the 1990s was in many ways due to the wisdom that he began to share with us in the late '80s.
Although Bob never took a pitch meeting or developed a comedy, he had an eye for recognizing a show's potential.
As strange as it may sound today, 10 years ago, when Will & Grace was in development, a number of senior NBC executives thought a show about the friendship between a gay man and a straight woman was inappropriate for network TV. I disagreed. Armed with a wonderful script by Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, and the enthusiasm of Jimmy Burrows to direct the pilot, I pushed it through the development maze—a “greenlight.”
When the pilot was to be screened in May, the house was divided. The younger development executives, who all had their hands in the process, were excited and proud of the show. I told them to be prepared for a fight because there were still many naysayers. But the fight never happened.
As the lights came back on after the screening, Bob turned around from his seat near the front of the room and said, “It's the best thing we've ever had our name on.” A knockout punch! The ground-breaking, award-winning show was headed to the airwaves.
But Bob didn't just count on the entertainment division to get the job done. By quickly setting out to buy more major-market stations and build and acquire cable channels, he became the architect of the diverse modern-day NBC Universal.