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How NBC Pulled Off a ‘30 Rock’ Upfront

Tina Fey on '30 Rock' upfront reunion
30 Rock star Tina Fey is coming back to NBC for a reunion tied to the upfront. (Image credit: NBCUniversal)

Funny thing about the upfronts. Broadcast networks have long put on elaborate shows to tell advertisers and media buyers about the shows people will be watching in the fall, a process many have found ridiculous and tried to change. Yet it took a pandemic to disrupt the traditional May upfront week of presentations and parties.

While some networks decided to replace their live upfront presentations with fancy versions of Zoom calls, Comcast’s NBCUniversal looked for a more ambitious alternative.

According to Josh Feldman, NBCU’s executive VP of marketing and advertising creative, about 35 seconds into a brainstorming session in mid-March, NBCU senior VP Steven Rummer said “it would be really cool if somehow we could pull off a reunion of 30 Rock and have the task [be] they need to put on some sort of upfront event, since they are such inside baseball to our company and our industry.”

RELATED: Affiliates Balk at Airing NBC’s ‘30 Rock’ Special

30 Rock, which went off the air in 2013, was a sitcom about a comedy show on a dysfunctional television network acquired by a cable company, not too dissimilar from NBC and Comcast. Tina Fey, a creator of the show, starred as producer Liz Lemon.

Feldman called up Linda Yaccarino, NBCU’s chairman for ad sales and partnerships, with the idea and the next morning they were in front of NBCU CEO Jeff Shell. “Within two weeks or so, we were pitching the idea to Tina Fey and Robert Carlock,” another of the show’s executive producers, he said. “And lo and beyond, they actually said yes to it.”

Fey: ‘It Made Sense’

“When NBC asked if we could write a reunion episode to pinch-hit for the upfronts this year, it made sense to us. Our show was about NBC and about people who love television, and at the same time, made jokes about and celebrated the industry for a long time,” said Fey, who spoke at an NBCU Creative Summit for advertisers on Thursday.

TV production has been shut down by the virus, complicating the making of the show.

“One of the big challenges of telling our story was that we couldn't have any of our characters in the same space,” Carlock said. “It was a question of coming up with a framework where everyone was in a place where they wanted something, even five years later, because it's always the question in any episode. We had to figure out, what would our characters want and how could they get it, or think they are getting it, in a Zoom reality?”

RELATED: Primetime Ratings: ‘30 Rock’ Special Doesn't Do Much on NBC

“It required a lot of planning,” added Oz Rodriguez, the film unit director of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, who directed the 30 Rock special. “Everything with production during this time, everything is a little harder, so you just have to plan. There were weeks and weeks of planning trying to figure out how to do this. It was like a regular production as far as scheduling, talent and scenes, but everything was a little harder as far as the prep. 

“Zoom is such a big part of everyone's life right now. It had to be a part of this story, but we didn’t just want to be in Zoom world for the duration of the episode,” Rodriguez said. “We wanted to be able to step outside. The first scene feels amazing to watch because it's Tina Fey on the street in New York, and we were able to do it safely.”

The episode is about the reunion of the 30 Rock characters, Feldman said, but with the NBCU upfront message layered in, much of it delivered by Tracy Morgan. It also name checks some ad-industry figures, including Yaccarino.

There are no commercials during the episode. Instead, the equivalent of commercial time is filled with trailers and promos of new shows and cameos of people who star in them, including Dwayne Johnson, Gwen Stefani, Jimmy Fallon, Khloe Kardashian, Mandy Moore and Andy Samberg.

“If you’re a fan of NBCUniversal or fan of television in general or of media in general, you're going to find this super-interesting,” Feldman said.

Testing New Formats

NBCU’s commercial format that introduces an ad from a scripted show is employed during the episode, Feldman said.

The episode aired in primetime on NBC Thursday, on NBCU cable networks Friday and is available on-demand via Peacock, the streaming service. Many NBC affiliates decided not to air the show, partly because it promoted programming not on their stations. 

Ad buyers were able to see it Thursday afternoon at the end of the NBCU Creative Summit. The big message for them is that NBCU could do something like this for their clients. How much would that cost? “I don’t have an answer for that,” Feldman said.