NBC Too Dumb To Sell Smart Ideas?

By: CT

In the classic flick The Big Chill, Jeff Goldblum’s character, who labored for People magazine, worked under an edict to not write any article longer than the average American could read during the average crap. Apparenty, NBC is now going to be operating under orders to not try and sell the average American on anything that can’t be easily summed up in 30 seconds or less. So says, basically, Angela Bromstad, NBC’s president of primetime entertainment.

Yesterday, she told the Television Critics of America that KINGS basically failed because it was “a little too high brow and too difficult to sell in a 30-second slot.” She went on to say “It doesn’t mean we’re not looking for big ideas. They have to be big ideas that the audience can grab on to.” 

For the record, let us fill Mr. Bromstad in on the real reason KINGS failed. While the big problem was marketing, it wasn’t the concept of the show or the inability of the audience to understand so big a concept so much as NBC’s apparent inability to actually figure out what they had and how to sell it. In the weeks before KINGS debuted, the network’s advertising campaign was scattershot at best. Despite having a potentially iconic image in the orange butterfly flag — which could easily have become the next Dharma Initiative logo — NBC failed to capitalize on the symbol. By simply plastering the symbol everywhere with a catchy tagline (“You will obey!”, or perhaps “Submit or die!”) they could have generated a word-of-mouth buzz that would have gotten people talking.

It also wouldn’t have hurt for the show’s promos to focus less on the epic nature of the story being told and more on the simple elements. Sorry, but sometimes, you need to take a divide-and-conquer approach to advertising by hitting people not with one commercial that sums up all the different angles of a series, but rather a series of spots, each of which highlights a different element.

Look at FOX’s upcoming, much-buzzed about GLEE, which seems to have hit viewers with new ads almost every week. Some focus on the production numbers. Others focus on the budding romance of the teen leads. Still others play up Jane Lynch’s withering cheerleading coach. It’s as if FOX is saying, “Hey, whatever you want… we’re gonna give it to you.”

Instead, in even the 60-second spots (twice the time Blomstad believes should be necessary to sell the audience on a premise), NBC’s ads for KINGS tried to sell romance, good vs. evil, too many characters we have no connection to, war… and all against a backdrop that looks familiar and yet is somehow slightly off. Throw in a rock tune that’s not particularly catchy and what do you have?

A hot mess.

Without the hot.

Most of those who found their way to KINGS did so not because of NBC’s ads, but in spite of them. And many who did became caught up in what was one of the most literate, complex television shows to grace network TV in years.

But don’t look to NBC for shows such as that in the future. They need ideas they can sell to the masses. Even the promising and (against all odds) returning SOUTHLAND will, we’re told, become less “serialized” (read: complicated).

In the years to come, when executives at the major networks complain about their ever-dwindling audience and wonder why all the best writers, directors and actors — not to mention Emmy nods and awards — are going to outlets such as FX (home of DAMAGES) or Showtime (home of NURSE JACKIE), I’ve no doubt they’ll blame everyone but themselves. But you and I? We’ll know that the smart money was on us all along.

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  • Josh Emerson

    Well, I think it could be argued that in general intelligent or complex shows just don’t attract wide audiences. There are exceptions, like Lost, but for the most part that holds true. I don’t think many of us would disagree with saying that 30 Rock is a far better show than Two and A Half Men, but look at the ratings.

    No matter how they promoted it, I don’t think Kings would have become a big hit. The reason cable and pay channels are able to air these shows is because they require a lot less of an audience to be called a “hit.”

  • Ace

    It’s like you took my comment from yesterday and turned it into a full post ;-): “The reason the 30 second spots for Kings didn’t work is b/c they tried to advertise the show as some cheap soap opera set in a fictional kingdom instead of an epic retelling of a biblical story. I guarantee that if they had sold it properly, it would have gotten far more viewers. I wasn’t even going to watch b/c it sounded cheesy, but luckily for me there was nothing else on that night.”

    But I could not agree more with everything you said. The ads that NBC aired for the show were HORRIBLE. They pretty much told you nothing about the show other than there was a king and he was mean. Instead they should have treated it like a movie trailer and given you little snippets of the actual show: David saving Jack, Jack’s jealousy, Silas’s secrets, the love story b/w David/Michelle, the manipulation by the Queen/her brother… So many things and just from the first episode! It’s like the person that made the promos didn’t even watch the show before deciding what to focus on.

  • Honestly, I don’t even remember much of an advertising campaign for Kings at all. Of course, that may be because I barely watch NBC.

    It’s hard to believe that NBC is the network that used to have The West Wing on it. I think Fear Factor was the show that first opened the door to NBC being a less intelligent network.

    Network executives seem to make their decisions based on the assumption that the viewing public is stupid. When viewing the results of those decisions, we, in turn, think the net execs are stupid. I wonder what it will take to break the cycle of assumed stupidity and whether NBC will ever be the best network again.

  • Rose

    I’m going to disagree with the premise of this post. Even with perfect marketing and a better time slot, KINGS was destined for failure. It was a political soap opera set in a fantasy alternate universe filled with really pretentious speeches. It was an interesting idea that made no sense to anyone other than die-hard TV fans. I hate to say it but the average American is not smart or patient enough to grasp such a complicated concept.

    To all the people that read this, forget whether you liked the show yourself. Just think about all of the people you know. How many of them would really appreciate a show like this? Can you even think of one person? Now think about how many people you know that watch something simple like American Idol or exciting like 24. It’s a big difference.

    Everything NBC said kind of makes sense. If a show cannot be pitched in 30 seconds, then something is wrong with it. Even a complicated show like LOST can be easily simplified into a 30 second commercial.

    I think the NBC marketing department dropped the ball with the KINGS promos, but it was probably intentional. They knew the show’s appeal was limited and cut their losses wherever they could.

  • ct

    Sorry, Rose, but I’m gonna have to disagree with you at least in part here. Every single person I showed KINGS to — after I had fallen in love with it — absolutely got hooked. But between the endless hiatus, the bad scheduling and the complete lack of promotion (let alone ads that actually knew what they were selling or how to sell it), it was a case of too little too late.

    I’d also say that NBC dropped the ball a bit (or perhaps in this case blame needs to be placed directly at the feet of the scribes) with the pilot: It’s TV/Movie 101 that you have to catch viewers in the first minute if you want to keep them, and the KINGS pilot didn’t really do a very good job of that.

    Of course, I might just be making arguments for no reason other than the fact that I don’t want to believe that morons are now the official majority. I want to believe in smart people, viewers who will be drawn to intelligent, well-put together shows, and… oh, hell. Who am I kidding. We live in an age when “birthers” (those who believe our president wasn’t born in this country) get more air time than does the health care reform debate.

    We’re doomed.

  • JRW

    NBC has also dropped the ball with “Merlin,” which keeps attracting the same 4.3 million people over and over and over, week after week after week, and NBC just…doesn’t…get…it. They’ve got a bigger genre hit than any cable series (like “Clone Wars” or “BSG”) and they don’t know what to do with it. I just hope they’ll be smart enough to bring it back, since at least you can sell “The O.C. Meets King Arthur” in 30 seconds.

    NBC’s an also-ran. Why its management doesn’t recognize that this is the chance for the network to redefine ITSELF rather than try to become like everything else out there is beyond me. NBC should try to become the network version of HBO, not a stupider version of the CW.