‘Must-See’ TV creator calls it quits

NBC's Miller to announce retirement after 25 years

John Miller still remembers the moment “Must See TV” went from network campaign to pop culture phenomenon.

“Must See TV” repped one of several career milestones for Miller, who has overseen marketing for 25 years at NBC. That era is about to officially end, as Miller formally announces his retirement this week at the annual PromaxBDA marketing confab.

NBC’s fortunes have risen and fallen several times since Miller first joined the Peacock in 1982 — and Miller exits the network during a particularly difficult period in its history.

But it wasn’t that long ago that NBC was riding high on the success of shows like “Friends” and “ER.” And Miller — along with his longtime marketing partner Vince Manze — helped stoke those flames.

“Must See TV” was first introduced on air in 1993, after newly installed NBC West Coast prexy Don Ohlmeyer revamped the net’s sked, stocking Thursday with most of the net’s hits.

“Don Ohlmeyer told us, ‘We’re putting our best stuff on Thursday night, and I want you to develop a campaign around it. This is a night of appointment TV,'” Miller recalled.

“One guy on our team said ‘Must See TV,’ and we said that’s good — it rhymes, and we went with it,” Miller said. “We came up with an annoying jingle that we must have played on every spot we ever did on Thursday nights for about a year and a half.”

Soon, the slogan “Must See TV” started showing up in parodies, comic strips and even news stories. At that point, Miller said, the network knew it had stumbled across something bigger than your average TV slogan.

NBC eventually started using the “Must See TV” tag across the schedule — but after a decade, it began to wear thin.

“We stayed with it for a long period of time until we really weren’t so much ‘Must See’ anymore,” Miller admitted. “And then we felt we needed to make a change.”

Around the same time that “Must See TV” was taking off, Miller and Manze introduced another initiative that would change the way the networks programmed primetime.

Dubbing the campaign “NBC 2000,” the Peacock started shrinking end credits to the side, instead filling most of the screen with promos or an extra scene. They also seamlessly ran the end of one program into the start of another — hoping to prevent viewers from flipping channels between shows.

It worked — and a year later, every other network emulated the move.

“‘NBC 2000’ was something I was enormously proud of,” Miller said. “We actually changed network primetime. We reconfigured the credits, probably something most people in the industry vilify me for. But we spent a full year creating the unit and almost a full summer going around to the Guilds, convincing them that this was good for the viewers.”

On the flip side, Miller admitted that he had less success with another slogan his team is more notoriously known for — “If You Haven’t Seen It, It’s New to You.”

That campaign, which ran in the summer of 1998, attempted to promote NBC’s summer repeats to auds.

“I thought it was pretty clever, but it never worked,” Miller said. “We had research at that point that even fans of a show had maybe watched half of a show’s episodes. This was well before DVRs, after all.

“So we came up with the slogan ‘It’s New to You’ — but most people said, ‘well, it’s not really new, and they didn’t watch it for a reason the first time.'”

Miller rattled off a series of program promos he remains most proud of, a list that includes “3rd Rock from the Sun” and “L.A. Law.” The exec also remains proud of several Olympics campaigns he was behind.

Meanwhile, if there’s one program that Miller admitted that he managed to, well, sell the audience a bill of goods, it was the 1996 miniseries “The Beast.”

“There were a few movies where you thought, ‘How are we ever going to get anyone to watch this?’ And then you’d get huge numbers for them. ‘The Beast’ was one of them,” Miller said.

“‘The Beast’ was actually a giant squid, but it looked like a big piece of plastic,” Miller said. “So we decided not to show it. We made the determination that not seeing the squid, but imagining it, was far better than seeing it.”

Miller has been gradually downsizing his marketing oversight at NBC Universal, where he has served as chief marketing officer of the NBC U TV Group since May 2004. NBC News and Sports marketing is now handled by those divisions, while the NBC Agency — which Miller founded with Manze in 1999 — is no longer handling campaigns for NBC U’s cable nets.

More recently, Adam Stotsky was named president of NBC Entertainment Marketing, moving over from sister Syfy, to handle the Peacock’s entertainment marketing efforts.

“A couple of years ago, when I first made this decision, it was a time when I said, ‘I’ve been doing this a long time,’ and quite candidly, it wasn’t the best of times at NBC,” Miller said. “Even though I had corporate responsibilities for the NBC Universal Marketing Council, I told them that maybe at a certain point it was time to turn things over to the next generation. You may want to try to use me for next couple of years to put things in place, and use my brain and memory and everything else, I told them.”

Miller, who turns 60 in October, said at a certain point “marketing is a young man’s game.”

“So much has dramatically changed,” Miller said. When I first took over, there were three networks. The affiliates wielded a lot more power. And we were dealing primarily with three mediums: On-air promo was the most important thing you did; there was print – significantly TV Guide; and everybody did radio.

“It’s a continuing migrating sort of world. I guess one of the things I’ve been able to do is migrate along with the changes in the way marketing got done,” he said. “It wasn’t so much that I wasn’t up to the challenge, it’s just that I’ve done that challenge for a longtime. A quarter of a century running the marketing department for a major television network is probably enough for any one person.”

Miller will continue chairing NBC U’s marketing council and will keep the chief marketing officer title until the end of the year. Beyond that, Miller — who’s also a two-time international barbershop quartet champion and an adjunct professor for Carnegie Mellon — said he’s open to new challenges.

“I’ll miss the competitive nature (of the job),” he said, “along with the creativity that comes with sitting next to some very talented people we’ve had here over the years.”

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