Before the Super Bowl aired this past Sunday, host network NBC aired this gem of a promotional video. (Go ahead and watch it if you haven’t already, or again. I’ll wait.)
As Josef Adalian notes, this type of rousing “all hands on deck” campaign used to be de rigeur for networks from the 1970s to the 1990s, but its use here highlights what I see as one of NBC’s greatest strengths, and also its potential weakness.
To my mind, this number beautifully sums up what sets NBC apart from its broadcast competitors: the sense that all the folks at NBC are really just one big, happy family. Even in the face of lagging ratings (they’re in a tie for fourth with Univision, at last count), an inability to find a hit, and faint praise for their entertainment chairman (“when you’re heading up the last-place network, the only direction to go is up”) who concedes that the network “had a really bad fall,” audiences, advertisers, and investors alike are still intrigued by the peacock network. But why?
In part, I would argue, it’s due to NBC’s lasting image–and one they continue to bank on–evidenced in the “Brotherhood of Man” spot. NBC still seems like the broadcast network of yore, one more closely resembling the Hollywood studio system than contemporary niche-marketed television. The sort of place where everyone looks sort of familiar, because you’ve seen them (likely on another NBC series) before. The sort of environment in which you can imagine the network’s stars getting together for lunch, or cracking jokes together in the hallways. This is not a new strategy, of course–one can recall with relative ease the “Must-See TV” crossover nights of the 1990s, and the fact that NBC stars of the era tended to move on to…other NBC series. Seeing Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Will Arnett move across the weekly schedule feels like part of the NBC legacy, ultimately, and knowing that so many current NBC stars are actually friends behind the scenes works to cement this notion in audiences.
Or maybe it’s because NBC is so firmly associated with New York’s 30 Rock (the place, not the series). From The Today Show to Brian Williams’ Rock Center to the eponymous series, Rockefeller Plaza has become the physical and emotional home of the network, with the result that it’s not difficult to imagine Kristen Wiig, Jimmy Fallon, Ann Curry, and Bob Harper dancing around outside the building. All of this combines to delight audiences, prompting tweets like, “NBC shows singing Brotherhood of Man gave me chills! I love this so much!” and “This is what my dreams look like.” And, perhaps my personal favorite, “Guys remember that time all the best NBC shows got together and sang Brotherhood of Man and I basically died? Me too.”
But NBC’s reliance on this image might be its albatross rather than its saving grace. As Myles McNutt has argued here on Antenna, the network’s reluctance to move beyond its own legacy is actually holding it back. As Jason Mittell pointed out to me when I posted the video to Facebook, the fact that “Brotherhood of Man” is centered so firmly around 30 Rock (the series, not the place) overestimates the series’ popularity. Indeed, the poorly rated series proves the point, exemplifying NBC’s “we’re all friends here” sensibility in the form of longtime NBC-friendly personalities (Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan) while overlooking the fact that the show (and the network) are in some fairly serious trouble according to traditional metrics.
Nonetheless, the video reveals what I see as the fundamental strength of the network–the fact that, as the song goes, these stars truly are “proud to be…right here on NBC.” The song’s actual lyrics in that moment are “proud to be…in that fraternity,” which I would contend is also an apt metaphor for the insidery network. And as thrilled as the stars are, many audience members are equally happy to see them hanging out together enjoying one another’s company. As one Tweeter commented, “Now this is a frat I’d pledge.” Indeed. And the network is banking on the fact that our desire to join the party will keep us coming back as they struggle to regain a spot at the top.