NBCUniversal’s Peacock service has yet to score a breakthrough hit comparable to its streaming rivals. But the first-time showrunners of the Will Smith-produced “Bel-Air” are bullish about their ability to do so, given its iconic roots and the marketing push surrounding its Super Bowl Sunday debut.
“I love our position,” says Rasheed Newson, co-showrunner with T.J. Brady, his longtime writing partner, who suggests that the show could provide a transformative role on the service akin to “Breaking Bad” on AMC during its early forays into original programming.
NBC will air a custom spot during the big game on Feb. 13 to encourage pigskin viewers to sample the show, a dark reimagining of 1990s hit sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” that was inspired by Morgan Cooper’s 2019 viral video revisiting the NBC series that starred Smith. Peacock also hosted a Philadelphia-flavored premiere party Feb. 9 (yes, cheesesteaks were on the menu), promotional tie-ins and social media takeover ad campaigns. The first three episodes of “Bel-Air” will be available for paid Peacock subscribers on Super Bowl Sunday, with additional installments to debut on a weekly basis. Subscribers to Peacock’s free tier will be able to stream the first episode.
Smith, whose Westbrook Studios is producing the show along with Universal Television, was heavily involved in casting charismatic newcomer Jabari Banks in the role of Will. The 10-episode series was shot in West Philadelphia and L.A., with Easter eggs alluding to the original sprinkled throughout. One thing it is not: a restaged look at specific episodes in the original series.
The show picks up on the national conversation on race, with Will’s arrival from West Philadelphia spotlighting the differences between his upbringing in a rougher neighborhood and that of his cousins in Bel-Air. “I think we would be falling short if it didn’t reflect some of these issues,” Brady says. “But we’re not an issue-of-the-week show.”
Getting to its kickoff hasn’t been easy for the series, however. Two other showrunners (Chris Collins and Dianne Houston) departed the production due to creative differences, before Brady and Newson, already on board as writers, were tapped to the shared showrunner role last year with the clock ticking on the planned Super Bowl launch date.
“Ultimately, the studio and the network made the decision to ask us to give it a try,” Brady says. “And we had not a lot of time because it was either going to air on this Super Bowl Sunday” or they were likely going to stop production and “take the time to develop it,” he says. “So it all happened very fast.”
Showrunner changes aren’t unusual in the TV business — the writing partners had seen it happen multiple times during their 16 years together as collaborators. But this was the first time they were asked to take over a show.
“Because you’re human, you feel bad for anybody losing a job,” Newson says. “But we were dedicated to the show; we wanted the show to survive.”
Cooper is philosophical about the leadership changes and the pandemic related hurdles “Bel-Air” also needed to overcome. “Ultimately, we got to the place needed to serve the project, and that’s what’s most important,” he says.
This will be the first time in decades that the network airing the Super Bowl will not be using that plum post-game position to launch a series — NBC will switch to Winter Olympics coverage instead. And in a way, the shifted focus to introducing the program on the parent company’s streaming service fits the current TV landscape.
During its fourth-quarter earnings call late last month, parent company Comcast said Peacock had nine million paid subscribers, the first disclosure of that financial yardstick since the platform launched nearly two years ago, and while some of the original shows have drawn plaudits, massive breakthrough success has so far eluded the streaming arm. NBC hopes that cord-cutters will sign up for Peacock to watch the big game and sample the platform’s other offerings, giving them a boost. “We want to get them to the game, but also talk about all the other things happening on Peacock as well,” Denney told Variety this week.
“Marry Me,” Universal’s musical rom-com starring Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson, debuts on Peacock Feb. 11 day-and-date with theatrical release as an added enticement for potential subscribers.
Like the showrunners, Cooper is less concerned about Peacock’s past performance than its potential moving forward.
“It’s my job to make the best show I possibly can, and that’s exactly what I’ve done,” Cooper says. “I think Peacock is going to be a force to be reckoned with, and hopefully ‘Bel-Air’ is something that is additive to that notion.”