When NBCUniversal was forced to cancel its annual Radio City Music Hall upfront presentation in March due to Covid-19, ad sales chief Linda Yaccarino and her team needed to come up with an alternative idea—and they knew that just simply a Zoom call wasn’t going to cut it. “That’s not who we are,” said Yaccarino.
Instead, someone on the creative team had the off-the-wall suggestion to reunite the 30 Rock cast and have them lead the upfront presentation instead. Yaccarino “flipped out” and by the next morning, the idea was pitched to new NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell, who “greenlit it in the room,” she said.
The next call was to 30 Rock co-showrunners Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, who responded to “the authenticity of the idea to the heart-center of that show,” which ended in 2013 after seven seasons, said Yaccarino. “It was so logical, and made so much sense for 30 Rock and the TGS team to take on this crazy idea.”
And that led to tonight’s 30 Rock reunion/upfront hybrid, which aired on NBC (and will be available tomorrow on the new Peacock streaming service and most NBCU cable networks) and featured the entire cast reprising their roles.
In the special, Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer), who has been NBCUniversal chairman for six years, reassembles the characters because he wants to reboot TGS (30 Rock’s fictional sketch show) for Peacock, though it turns out he’s just mad at his former friends for ducking his Zoom invites during the four months they’ve been quarantining.
The special weaves 30 Rock’s madcap humor—with topical jokes about Zoom bombs, mask wearing and cancel culture as well as several playful jabs at NBCUniversal (a spoof promo for Law & Order: SVU 2, Just the Paperwork and a reference to P-Hen, what it claims is “NBC’s new female-centric streaming service”)—with a more traditional upfront pitch.
And in place of commercials, the special included upfront sizzle reels for Peacock, Telemundo, NBC News, NBC Sports, new shows like Chucky (airing on both USA and Syfy) and several of NBC’s new scripted series: comedies Mr. Mayor (created by Fey and Carlock, starring Ted Danson), Keenan (starring SNL’s Keenan Thompson), Young Rock (based on Dwayne Johnson’s childhood) and dramas Debris and the actual Law & Order spinoff coming to the network, Organized Crime, with Christopher Meloni reprising his SVU role as Elliot Stabler.
There are also plenty of in-jokes for marketers: Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy talks about how attractive advertisers are (“some of the smartest and most physically attractive people this industry has ever seen”), the upfront is referred to as “the most important day of the calendar, and Tracy Morgan’s Tracy Jordan talks about the company’s new One Platform offering and name-checks Yaccarino, though in typical Tracy Jordan fashion, he instead calls her “Linda Yaccarahnio.”
(The special also features around 20 cameos from NBCU stars, including Johnson, Al Roker, Sofia Vergara, Mandy Moore, Khloe Kardashian, Hoda Kotb, Gwen Stefani and Danson.)
After the special debuted Thursday afternoon for attendees of NBCU’s Creativity Summit, a giddy Yaccarino (“I’m literally bursting with pride, what my team did today”), got on the phone with Adweek to break down the telecast and answer some burning questions:
Adweek: So I guess I should call you Linda Yaccarahnio?
Yaccarino: I was getting inundated with texts. I told everyone, I’m getting new business cards. It’s all going to say, “Linda Yaccarahnio.” [laughs] And you know what’s funny about it? Originally, it was a mistake. And I was like, “Oh, my God, they have to keep that in!” I’m so glad they decided to keep it in. It was great.
Even though there is an “NBCUniversal Ad Sales Presentation” in the show, you don’t ever actually use the word “upfront.” Did you purposely leave that out because you thought the audience might not get it?
I don’t know if we ever had a meeting that said don’t use the word upfront. But for those people who know about the upfront, it was implicit in everything we did, particularly ‘”Jiminy [Fallon]’s” part at Radio City. There were some little Easter eggs in there, where Tracy did say “One Platform.” And there was a variety of other things that were a special wink and a nod to all our advertisers. According to Jack Donaghy, they are the most good looking bunch ever out there. So we were really comfortable with the fact those who were in the know got all the inside jokes, but we also knew you’re really first serving our viewers. We wanted to have it in their speak, and they get it. We know that Robert and Tina know their audience, they know how to tell the joke and tell the story wrapped up in all of 30 Rock.
There’s one scene where several brands are listed, including Target, which is a longtime partner of yours and a Peacock sponsor. How much input did you have into that list?
The clients that were mentioned—and we could have gone on and on for hours—they’re just great partners to NBCUniversal. But there really was no meeting where we picked and chose clients. But those are great partners of ours, and it made sense to include all of them because they oftentimes lock arms with us and believe in the vision of how we’re trying to push the market forward.
In addition to the sizzle reels and promos you would expect in a typical upfront, you also featured a spot for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure at Universal Orlando Resort. Why did you spotlight a non-TV entity from your portfolio in the upfront?
We always at our upfront focus on the breadth of our entire company. It’s a real opportunity to showcase every asset that this company has that, when mobilized together, offer great opportunities to our advertisers. I think for your average viewer, there’s going to be so many aha moments, from theme parks to studios to across all screens, they’ll be like, “I didn’t know that was NBCUniversal.” That’s what we’re so excited about. And that’s what Zoom calls with pretaped little bits couldn’t give you. This gave us the latitude of a creative canvas. There’s no surrogate for that.
In your closing remarks at the NBCU Creativity Summit today, you said advertising history books going forward will show that today was the day the upfront changed forever. So where do you go from here? It’s hard to top this reunion.
No one has a crystal ball of how we can raise the bar even further. Today really raised the bar. But if transformation is the name of the game, you’ll have to stay tuned to see what happens next. We’re in the consumer business, and our business reflects their behavior, so we’re going to let them lead the way. But I think it’s a really historic day for our company and, quite frankly, a historic day for the industry, because we will prove what can happen when a great idea is given the green light to proceed.
Finally, when do ad sales start for the P-hen streaming network?
What makes you think we’re not sold out already? [laughs]