Along with the other major TV networks, NBC canceled its annual spring presentation to potential advertisers, known as the upfronts, in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic set in. But while its competitors went virtual for pitches, roadshows and town halls designed to line up big ad sales for the fall and next year, parent company NBCUniversal rebooted a classic sitcom, “30 Rock,” for a primetime special aimed not just at viewers but at advertisers to showcase what the network does best: old-fashioned TV and cutting-edge advertising.

The hour-long special aired on Thursday, July 16, and brought back the entire cast of “30 Rock,” which ran from 2006 to 2013, for a meta look at the upfronts process. True to the sitcom’s show-within-a-show setup, the special featured Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon and Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy figuring out how to help in-universe NBC president Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) with his presentation to advertisers without using the word “upfronts” once.

Featuring the same knowing, TV-skewering humor the show was known for, the special poked fun at the entire endeavor in between ads that showcased the NBCUniversal media empire, including its new Peacock over-the-top (OTT) service, which launched on July 15. Plus, like a usual upfronts presentation, it previewed some of the conglomerate’s newest ad offerings, including some of the 11 new formats across talent, content and sensory categories that were introduced earlier in the day.

Still, it was difficult not to remember how the pandemic has shaken the advertising ecosystem, with linear TV ad revenues down 27%, sports marketing (including NBCU’s $1.25 billion Olympic ad haul) in jeopardy and major advertisers demanding changes to the upfront process.

New shows, new formats

The special relied heavily on the talent of NBCUniversal’s offerings, with guest appearances by Jimmy Fallon, Al Roker, Khloe Kardashian, Mandy Moore, Gwen Stefani and many more. Kenan Thompson and Don Johnson showed off their chemistry in advance of “Kenan,” a new show whose production has been stalled because of the pandemic, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson showed up to preview a new show about his formative years, “Young Rock.”

Key to the “30 Rock” special were ad formats like the new Brand Experience, where marketers work with NBCU writers, producers and talent to integrate their brands into shows, the Scripted Commercial Launch (launched in 2018), that seamlessly transitions from show to ad, and ShoppableTV ads (launched in 2019).

The NBCU brand was on full display throughout the scripted portion of the show, with jokes about Peacock (which doesn’t include NBC classic “Friends”) and a mispronunciation of NBCU ad sales chief Linda Yaccarino’s last name by comedian Tracy Morgan’s malapropistic character Tracy Jordan. Viewers were given an opportunity to learn more about Peacock with a shoppable ad tied to a QR code. To show off the Scripted Commercial Launch, “30 Rock” made a joke about the delayed Olympics — set for broadcast next year across NBCU properties — before transitioning to a sentimental ad featuring children inspired by watching the Olympics.

The new and recently launched formats were described as “significantly more effective than traditional advertising” by Josh Feldman, NBCU’s EVP and head of marketing and advertising creative, to Adweek, which reported that 92% of consumers appreciate commercial innovation over standard ads, with 88% more likely to remember the featured brand.

Poking fun at the process

Beyond the jokes about the quirks of social distancing and Zoom meetings discovered during the pandemic, a frequent target of the show’s jokes was the endeavor itself. This wasn’t a surprise, considering the show’s sometimes controversial propensity for both utilizing product placement and parodying the tactic.

During its original run, the show broke the fourth wall with jokes about Snapple and Verizon placements (Lemon once asked “can we have our money now?” after praising the phone company), blurred the lines with interstitial ads for American Express and Dr. Pepper, and featured at least one storyline about a major advertiser (McDonald’s) that Fey claimed wasn’t product placement.

Thursday night’s special did much of the same. Both Donaghy and Lemon broke the fourth wall, with the former praising the attractiveness and intelligence of advertisers. Fallon mused about how the NBCU ad sales presentation was usually at Radio City Music Hall and not “Couch City Music Hallway” (offering “my writers and I are pretty depressed,” to explain the lame joke) before claiming that “sales messages don’t need to be an interruption… but a seamless part of the story.”

And in the most outsized in-joke, McBrayer’s Parcell looked directly to the camera, namedropped Target, Dove, Toyota, Wayfair, Apple and others as NBCU advertisers practically begged for “anyone else who would want to be on this list” — before an animated soul left his body.

Making TV and ads during the pandemic

Using an approach that has become customary during the pandemic, the “30 Rock” content played out with everyone alone in their homes, communicating via Zoom, Webex and various video chat services. The setup was both a way to ground the show in the present moment — both for consumers and for marketers facing burnout due to working remotely. But it also pointed to how shows and ads can be produced as social distancing pauses traditional productions.

After the show, a title card ensured viewers that, “Everything you saw tonight was shot safely at home, with the help of family, and guided remotely by our awesome ’30 Rock’ crew. It was bananas,” before showing behind-the-scenes footage of the production. The same remote tactic has been used by marketers including Coca-Cola and Chrysler, and promises to be more common as the pandemic persists. Interestingly, the show also used deepfake technology to insert Morgan into real sports footage, a move recently used by Michelob and State Farm in some of the most pivotal ads of 2020 so far.

The future of TV

As expected, the wide launch of Peacock this week was a key element of the special. The latest entrant in an increasingly crowded OTT space made its pitch as a destination for classic shows, movies, exclusive originals, documentaries, cartoons — including both quick and bingeable content — with a tagline of “Watch for free, upgrade for more.”

But while a handful of station groups opted out of airing the special because they feared Peacock and the cord-cutting it represents would be the presentation’s main priority, they didn’t need to worry. The main message of the show was that TV — even as the pandemic has cast a pall over daily life, disrupted consumer habits, stalled media production and delayed live sports — is still important.

“I can’t believe I doubted that TV still mattered,” Lemon admits to Donaghy. With its one-of-a-kind upfront special, NBCU is hoping that advertisers feel the same.