NEW YORK - During NBC's slow slide to near-irrelevancy in prime time over the past decade, a succession of entertainment executives sat in boardrooms plotting comeback moves that didn't work.
It's still early, but NBC seems finally to have hit upon a plan that is moving things in the right direction. New entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt's baby steps strategy of using the successful competition "The Voice" as its centerpiece has helped NBC stand as the only one of the four big broadcasters to have a larger prime-time audience than it had last fall.
In the 18-to-49-year-old demographic NBC targets, the network has made a startling move from fourth place to first, winning the first four weeks of the season for the first time since 2002. Among all viewers, it ranks third behind CBS and ABC.
"They needed a hit show to ignite the network," said Marc Berman, an analyst with TV Media Insight, "and now they have it."
Greenblatt, who came to NBC after running Showtime, said he understands the temptation of thinking all of a network's problems can be solved at once. Since that almost never happens, he brought a lesson he learned from cable.
He decided to set one or two priorities and put all of the network's attention on achieving them. In this case, the plan was to build out from NBC's most successful franchise, the Sunday night football game, and improve the nights right after it.
NBC launched its first-ever fall version of "The Voice" and stretched it to two nights a week - Monday and Tuesday. Greenblatt didn't want to compete directly with Fox's "The X Factor" later in the week, and believed ABC's competing "Dancing With the Stars" was an aging franchise with a greying audience.
"The Voice" has rewarded his confidence and, just as importantly, served as a launching pad for new shows that followed it on the schedule, the drama "Revolution" on Monday and Matthew Perry comedy "Go On" on Tuesday.
Through four weeks, "The Voice" has averaged 14.1 million viewers on Monday night, more than double what "The Sing Off" had in the time slot last year, according to the Nielsen company. "Revolution" has averaged 11.9 million viewers, numbers that include some DVR playback. "The Playboy Club" was a high-profile bust at the same time last year, getting 3.5 million viewers for its third and final episode.
NBC's average in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic on Tuesdays is up 42 percent from 2011, Nielsen said.
The story is different on Wednesday and Thursday, where NBC is down from last year. In fact, Thursday night - NBC's former "must see TV" night - is down 32 percent in the demo compared to a year ago, when it wasn't doing well in the first place.
That's not entirely unexpected, though, because it wasn't NBC's focus.
"The tendency is to look at the whole week and say, 'oh, we're going to fix this' and 'oh, we're going to fix that on another night,'" Greenblatt said. "You end up spreading out your assets and ultimately your ability to do anything significant. We were really disciplined and diligent this year and said, 'let's try to do one or two things extraordinarily well and let everything else sort of be what it is at the moment.'"
NBC advertised its new shows during the Olympics and even ran sneak previews of "Go On," "Revolution" and "Animal Practice." True to the nature of TV's law of averages, the limp "Animal Practice" has already been cancelled.
Rather than wait for the traditional start of the TV season in the last week of September, NBC started "The Voice" and its new shows a week or two earlier to get people in the habit of watching them.
Greenblatt's ultimate goal is to broaden NBC's appeal. The network's Thursday night comedies probably have more critical plaudits (and Emmy Awards, in the case of "30 Rock") than they have viewers.
"He's trying to make comedies that people will watch," said Bill Gorman, co-founder of the website TV By the Numbers, "as opposed to comedies like 'Community' and '30 Rock' that have small, rabid fan bases but not a lot of people watching them."
Two nights don't make a complete turnaround, though. Greenblatt recognizes he has challenges ahead of him. Football leaves a hole in NBC's schedule when the NFL season ends this winter. "The Voice" ends its cycle in December and doesn't return until March. Then, popular cast members Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green will be missing.
Greenblatt will face a decision that is always vexing for TV executives: Do you move successful new shows to try and seed other nights, or does that put them at risk of losing their audience? "Go On" is an interesting test. NBC could move it to Thursday, and put Perry next to a new comedy starring Michael J. Fox that is expected to start next fall, and completely restructure that night. But that presumes that Perry's fans will follow him.
Greenblatt said NBC has a lot of work to do, both in programming and in staffing. "It's really a from-the-ground-up rebuild," he said.
"It's a lot of hard work," he said. "We've been in a bad place for much of that, so it's nice to look around in our staff meetings and say it's possible to change the fate. There are days when you think it isn't possible. But it's really nice to get some validation that the strategy works. When you have some good shows, that will change all. So we're feeling a lot better than we were."