Fey sketch viewed more than 40 million times

Can Sarah Palin save “30 Rock”?

The Republican veepee candidate may be the best thing that’s happened to NBC’s Tina Fey laffer, which launches its third season Oct. 30.

Yeah, those Emmy Awards were nice. But only 12.2 million people were watching that kudocast when Fey took home the statues for writing, actress and top comedy.

In comparison, clips of Fey as Palin — many of which end with a plug for “30 Rock” — have been viewed more than 40 million times online. That’s the kind of exposure most blurbmeisters would pay big bucks for.

“You can’t manufacture the kind of viral marketing that’s transpired over the past 10 days,” says Adam Stotsky, president of NBC Entertainment Marketing.

Now, NBC is counting on “30 Rock’s” perfect storm — the Palin pandemonium, the Emmy wins, the show’s big upcoming guest stars (including Oprah Winfrey), Fey’s omnipresence (American Express ads, “Baby Mama”) — to finally turn the show into the hit many believe it should be.

“Some things we’re just lucky on, and some things we’re smart on,” says NBC Universal TV chief marketing officer John Miller. “I’d like to think in this case we were smart and lucky.”

With all those factors leading to the season premiere, expectations are big for “30 Rock.” If it doesn’t explode now, some wonder whether it’ll ever become a mainstream success.

It’s anything but a foregone conclusion that “30 Rock” will finally strike it big. Fox’s “Arrested Development” also received heaps of critical praise and Emmys, but could never attract a large-enough audience. “30 Rock” isn’t quite as fanciful as “Arrested” was, but still shares some of that show’s quirky, more edgy comedy traits.

“30 Rock” also has quite a steep climb out of the Nielsen basement. The show averaged 6.5 million viewers last year, less than half of TV’s top comedy, “Two and a Half Men” on CBS. And among TV’s 15 returning primetime laffers this season, only Fox’s “‘Til Death” averaged a lower 18-49 number.

With so much at stake, the Peacock has been criticized for not striking while the iron was hot and immediately launching “30 Rock” as Fey first hit “SNL” with her Palin impression last month. But the net points to Fey’s subsequent appearances both on “SNL” and its special Thursday night editions of “Weekend Update” — as well as Palin’s own guest shot on “SNL” — which would have come after the show’s launch.

The high-rated “SNL” specials aired in the 9:30 p.m. “30 Rock” timeslot, accomplishing NBC’s goal of getting people to stick with the net after its 9 o’clock hit “The Office” leaves the air. “30 Rock” will bow on the opening night of the November sweep.

“For us it was a calculated risk, knowing we’d have so much energy coming off ‘SNL’ in primetime,” says NBC Entertainment exec VP Teri Weinberg. “We’re bringing in mass viewership. Tina’s a household name now.”

Weinberg says the momentum reminds her of “The Office’s” breakout season, which came after the feature “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” turned Steve Carell into a household name as well.

“We do have an opportunity now to really put this show on stilts,” Weinberg says.

Still, it will be a challenge. Even “SNL” boss Lorne Michaels — who doubles as a “30 Rock” exec producer — made light of it during Palin’s recent appearance on the latenight show.

“Why couldn’t we do the ’30 Rock’ sketch I wrote?” the candidate asked Michaels.

Michaels’ response: “Honestly, not enough people know that show.”

Crix have also questioned the show’s commercial appeal. Variety‘s Brian Lowry, for example, recently wrote “30 Rock” “remains merely a good comedy, whose shortcomings prevent it from joining the ranks of great ones.”

Adds a rival webhead: “I think it could get close to ‘The Office.’ That being said, it’s probably a little ‘too smart for the room’ to ever be a mass appeal show.”

Robert Carlock, “30 Rock” exec producer, says he has faith auds will give the show a shot — or take another look.

“We don’t have a ton of time to dwell on the stuff we can’t control,” he says. “(But) it was never our desire to do a critically acclaimed, boutique show. We want to do a critically acclaimed, mass-appeal show. Between the actors we have and the comedy we’ve got on the screen, hopefully people will find it … I would think that with all the stuff going on we’d pull in more eyeballs.”

NBC execs admit the show started out in a different place creatively — and was also hampered at first because so much of the initial buzz on the show was tied to the fact it bowed at the same time NBC launched “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”

“It’s also set behind the scenes of a TV show, and that was the undoing of ‘Studio 60,’ ” Miller says. “That’s one of the challenges that ’30 Rock’ has to face.”

But like “The Office,” which gained steam as characters were further developed and relationships blossomed, “30 Rock” has undergone a similar transition.

“On ‘The Office,’ it wasn’t until the discovery of the relationship of Pam and Jim that viewers warmed up to the show,” Miller says. “Similarly, we’re seeing the friendship between Jack (Alec Baldwin) and Liz (Fey) take root. The show has really made some adjustments to broaden out.”

Carlock agrees, and says the show’s writing this year “has felt a little different than the other years.”

“It’s so much more about these characters,” he says. “The great thing is, whether through a little bit of luck and through the faith and support of NBC, we’ve gotten the chance to get to that point where we know exactly what a Liz scene is, or a Tracy (Tracy Morgan) scene is.”

Meanwhile, just in case the word’s not out, NBC is deploying the traditional marketing tools — print, radio, cable, digital, outdoor — to promote the show. Recent on-air spots have not only touted the guest spots by Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston, Megan Mullally and Steve Martin, but they’ve also given the specific dates that each will appear.

“With the Emmy accolades, the guest stars, Sarah Palin, Tina on the cover of Rolling Stone, the digital, it will all hopefully crescendo with a sizable audience,” Stotsky says.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more