And it was before his stretch as an award-winning producer of more than a dozen series including the groundbreaking funeral-home drama “Six Feet Under,” which ran on HBO from 2001 to 2005.
Mr. Greenblatt, a smartly dressed redhead with a trim beard and mustache, had begun his career at the infant Fox network. There, from 1992 to 1997, he ran its prime-time programming.
“That was back in the days when Fox was just getting off the ground,” he recalled, “and, in a world where viewers only knew three networks, we’d ask ourselves, how does a fourth network get in the door?”
The answer: “programming that viewers could not avoid, that you could not turn away from,” he summed up. “We did things that nobody had done before.”
Fox innovated with adult-oriented animation (“The Simpsons”), science fiction (“The X-Files”), teen drama (“Beverly Hills 90210”) and edgy prime-time sketch comedy (“In Living Color”).
“Suddenly viewers were coming to us, wondering ‘What’s going on over there?’” he said. “And that is almost exactly the mentality I have at NBC right now. NBC in recent years has been the fourth network, and here we’ve had to ask ourselves, ‘How do we get attention?’ “
Mr. Greenblatt won attention for NBC a year ago with the much-ballyhooed premiere of “Smash.” This musical drama set in the world of Broadway was a Greenblatt passion project whose development he had overseen while at Showtime, then brought with him to his new network.
“Smash” depicts a world Mr. Greenblatt clearly loves and understands. In his spare time in 2009, he produced the Tony Award-nominated musical adaptation of “9 to 5.”
“I’m a producer at heart,” he said. “I get really excited about The Show” — whether it’s on Broadway or, more typically, his network.
Mr. Greenblatt boils down his background this way: a gay, Catholic kid with a Jewish last name who grew up in rural Rockford, Ill. There, as a youngster, he got deeply involved in theater.
“My dream as a teenager was to run a movie studio, as in the old studio system,” he said.
But that Tinseltown era was long gone. Television represented the modern version of the Hollywood “dream factory” where he could produce or present the shows that got him excited.
These included shows that gave gay characters a significant presence, from “Six Feet Under,” where one of the sons of the funeral-home family was a gay man (played by Michael C. Hall) in a stable same-sex relationship, to this season’s NBC comedy “The New Normal,” about a gay couple who arrange for a surrogate mom to bear their child.
“But there was never any conscious gay agenda,” Mr. Greenblatt said. “I’ve just always been a proponent of having a lot of diversity in the shows I’ve done.” Today, the world Mr. Greenblatt lives in as the boss of NBC is a complicated place. It’s a media realm with multiplying platforms and once-time-honored rules in continuous flux.
So how does anyone in charge keep his footing on this changing landscape? By staying focused, Mr. Greenblatt said.