NBC Bets Madison Avenue Craves a Return to ’30 Rock’

Analysis: Tina Fey's fan-favorite comedy pioneered a new ad method: making fun of sponsors and promoting them all at the same time. Will the show have the same allure in a tougher economic moment?

30 Rock NBC

NBC for seven years offered advertisers a novel proposition: Pay us money to put your products in our show and let the  series’ writers make fun of them. Oddly enough, it worked.

Fans may remember the offbeat sitcom “30 Rock” – a comedy ostensibly about the inner workings and strange characters behind a long-running TV variety show not unlike “Saturday Night Live”  – for Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of oblivious corporate executive Jack Donaghy and Tina Fey’s nerdy Liz Lemon. Madison Avenue recalls  the show for its ability to get blue-chip marketers like Kraft, Verizon, Snapple and Dr Pepper to cough up thousands of dollars for product placements that criticized the sponsors  for even showing up. Advertisers seemed happy to keep feeding the mouth that bit them.

“Can we have our money now?” asked Liz Lemon in a 2008 episode, turning to the camera after a scene in which she talked about how much she loved products made by Verizon Wireless. In a 2007 broadcast, a group of writers on the show’s fictional program tell each other that weaving products into the series is a bad idea, then start touting the virtues of Snapple, which had paid for the whole scene.  In 2010, actor Chris Parnell, playing recurring character Dr. Spaceman on the series, told viewers in an end-of-show vignette that drinking Dr Pepper would banish boredom. NBC executives at the time liked to pretend that Fey and her co-producer on the series, Robert Carlock, had no hand in penning these antics (The  duo actually devised many of the concepts themselves).

A decade later, NBC is betting marketers will take heed of the program once again – with one notable difference. In its original run. “30 Rock” was an NBC show that helped call attention to a wide array of commercial messages. On Thursday night, “30 Rock” will serve as a commercial message for a wide array of different NBC-affiliated shows.

Fey, Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski and Jack McBrayer will all convene Thursday evening at 8 p.m., when NBC airs what is said to be a “30 Rock” reunion. In reality, the program is an “upfront” pitch aimed at advertisers that will tout coming programs on NBCUniversal’s many holdings, which also encompass the Telemundo Spanish-language network; cable outlets like USA, Syfy and CNBC; and the new Peacock streaming-video service.

The show represents a bid by NBC and its corporate owner Comcast to jump-start what has been characterized as a moribund session of the annual talks held each year between advertisers and the TV networks to sell the bulk of commercial time for the fall season. With the coronavirus pandemic forcing cutbacks in consumer spending, travel, and movie production, some groups of advertisers aren’t exactly feeling the need to let loose of their purse strings. Indeed, many are calling for the industry’s annual upfront to be scuttled entirely in favor of a new system. NBC intends to air the special without commercials, even as it hopes to prove to would-be sponsors the value of running ads in its programs.

But “30 Rock” will also serve as a commercial for commercials. NBC plans to use the special to highlight new types of advertising formats it wants to sell to its clients, like commercials that augment the programs to which viewers originally tuned by using content, hallmarks and even actors from the series.

In the past, “30 Rock” convinced even the most conservative backers. When NBC prepared to send off the show for good in 2013, General Electric, a longtime owner of NBC, decided to get in on the gag by running an ad that paid tribute to the series with a video that compiled its favorite moments. Fans will recall that “30 Rock” during its tenure lampooned the conglomerate mercilessly.

Fey and company may need to work harder in 2020 to put a smile on everyone’s face. Hearst, Tegna, Sinclair Broadcasting, Gray Television and Nexstar Broadcasting are likely not to run the “30 Rock” reunion on their NBC affiliates, according to three people familiar with the matter, in part because, well, why would any media outlet want to cede commercial time to another company in the midst of an uncertain economy? NBCUniversal plans to run the special on its cable networks and make it available on streaming outlets for on-demand viewing, so if someone has a hankering to see this thing, chances are they will eventually find it.

Swiping ad time from local affiliates has never been a popular tactic. Fox Corp. learned this lesson anew in 2018 when it tried to put through a massive 40% reduction in the number of TV ads it ran on Sunday evenings, including local spots – only to find the idea made its affiliates queasy (as well as the executives who ran its own local station group). When Fox ran a commercial-free season premiere of “24” in 2005, the network had to give its affiliates ad time later in the year to make up for the loss.

In its original run, “30 Rock” never took ads away from people. The show only gave them more minutes devoted to advertising because it made commercials part of the show. As Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy are bound to find out tomorrow night, things have changed.