'30 Rock' live broadcast among the gimmicks in the works

In a crowded TV landscape where returning skeins don’t have nearly the marketing dollars of freshman shows, networks are always looking for inexpensive ways to draw attention to programs.

The cast and crew at NBC’s “30 Rock” are going forward this week with an endeavor eerily similar to what it does every week on its fictional show “TGS With Tracy Jordan”: Go live. Other shows will follow with their own gimmicky spins in an attempt to spark interest for longtime fans and those who may want to sample a show they don’t regularly watch.

After all, the stunt-casting game seems largely played out — Betty White can be a “special guest star” on only so many shows — and it’s getting harder and harder to make noise.

In only its second season, “Community” has been proficient at earning headlines and blog chatter with original stunts. Upcoming examples for the show, which faces a formidable comedy challenge now from CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” include an Oct. 14 space-themed episode that’s a takeoff of “Apollo 13,” an Oct. 21 episode tackling religion and a Dec. 9 holiday episode where “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”-like stop-motion animation will be included.

“My core philosophy is once you no longer have people flooding to you, you’re in the business to get your fans to evangelize you,” says “Community” exec producer Dan Harmon. “You get that by rewarding them. I’m a big nerd and put myself in their shoes and write the show as if I was watching TV and couldn’t flip away from it.”

Elsewhere, Fox says it’s giving its Seth MacFarlane-created animated Sunday laffers a hurricane theme in May: The characters from “American Dad,” “The Cleveland Show” and “Family Guy” won’t be able to leave the house because of a dangerous storm. ABC will have “No Ordinary Family” leads Michael Chiklis and Julie Benz interact and tweet with viewers during an upcoming episode, CBS will bring back another Robin Sparkles video on “How I Met Your Mother,” and NBC and Fox will use Halloween as a way to bind their shows together.

On Oct. 26, “Glee” and “Raising Hope” will incorporate Halloween into their storylines and, continuing a Fox tradition, the Sunday night animation lineup will spook out its aud shortly after Halloween (airing Nov. 7 this year). Meanwhile, at NBC, from Oct. 19-28, “Parenthood,” “Chuck,” “Community,” “The Office,” “Outsourced” and special “Scared Shrekless” will go ghoul.

“The Office,” in fact, will even go outside the Peacock for some fun. Nov. 11 episode “Viewing Party” involves staffers gathering to watch “Glee.”

The Oct. 14 episode of “30 Rock” will actually air live twice — once for each coast. The idea was hatched during the writers strike when the cast was performing onstage at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, and several cast and crew thought the concept would work for “30 Rock.”

“From a marketing perspective, this gives us a different way into the show,” says NBC marketing topper Adam Stotsky of the first live half-hour comedy on broadcast television since “Will and Grace” in September 2005. “The thought of them doing their brand of comedy live twice in one night is a big promotable hook. Whenever we can find these hooks, we love it and will leverage it to the fullest.”

Despite going up against CBS’ successful new half-hour “Bleep My Dad Says” and in a new 8:30 timeslot where it doesn’t benefit from “The Office” as a lead-in, “30 Rock” has held steady in its fifth season. The Tina Fey-Alec Baldwin skein was averaging a 2.6 rating in adults 18-49 and building sharply on its “Community” lead-in.

So while the show is performing admirably, a live episode could be a way to attract new viewers — often difficult for a program in its fifth season.

“It’s a challenge for ongoing shows,” Stotsky explains. “Every week you have to give reason to check out those shows and, as a network, prove your mettle.”

Rich Appel, exec producer of “The Cleveland Show,” says that even though a program may have a loyal following, the sheer volume of competition that comes from broadcast, cable and leisure activities is enough to keep creators from getting complacent.

“I hope that when you do something that seems original and, you hope, good, your loyal viewers will remember to tune in that night,” he says. “The things that cause people to tune in are more and more about creative, original and interesting programming.”

While live television is common in reality competition series, it’s rare on the scripted side. In 2000, George Clooney starred in a televised play of “Fail Safe” for CBS, and a year later the net broadcast a reworked edition of “On Golden Pond” starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Among series, NBC’s “ER” aired a live episode in 1997, and “The West Wing” broadcast a live debate in 2005 between Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda’s characters who were running for president. And in addition to “Will and Grace,” ABC’s “The Drew Carey Show” gave it a shot as well.

Andy Donchin, director of media investments for Carat USA, says he applauds the effort to do something out of the ordinary.

“I don’t think there will be a great ratings bump, but it’s not just a gimmick,” says Donchin. “I applaud them for shaking things up a little and to try to get more exposure. … It has more value than just calling it a gimmick. Maybe it’s not transformational, but it is all about sampling, and it opens up conversations. It’s a way they can distinguish themselves a little bit.”

Exec producer Robert Carlock says the thought of a live episode was particularly appealing because several of the “30 Rock cast — Fey, Baldwin and Tracy Morgan — were “Saturday Night Live” vets, while Jack McBrayer has performed improv comedy for years. And “30 Rock” exec producer Lorne Michaels has guided “SNL” since its inception.

“The challenge from a writing standpoint is to try to make it feel like a ’30 Rock’ show while only having access to three sets, when we’re usually out on location,” Carlock says.

Fox’s “hurricane” animation theme — originated by MacFarlane — won’t air until May, if only because toons need extended turnaround time from script to screen. The network will clearly give the shows a big ad push during the critical ratings month.

Says Appel: “If you can think of something that sounds fun and original, you’ll get viewers to check you out.”

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