Entertainment is a social construct. Every society, community, and culture defines entertainment for themselves. In many places television, because it is both cheap and easily accessible, has become a viable, and perhaps even a popular, form of entertainment. To many people television is often easy to understand and easy to find, which is important in a “throw- away culture” like the one we have here in the United States (Whitley 3). Americans want things cheap, easy, and disposable. This has carried over to many aspect of our society from the poorly made cars we sell to the environment we abuse. It’s also, of course, carried over into the television we watch. Obsessed with ratings and selling ad space, television networks (and all associated parties) seem to run to (and embrace with open arms) anything that can attract people, because of people really means money. That is why there are so many reality shows and why many situational comedies, or sitcoms, seem to operate on predetermined formulas. It seems that many television networks reduce the audience to simple interests which are connected to certain demographics. This turns television into a watered down and bland form of entertainment, which is the case for many shows on television, but some people expect more from their television shows. Being told when to laugh (with laugh tracks) and being tossed no more than a couple jokes before each commercial break isn’t working for some people.
The face of comedy on television is changing. More and more, networks are picking up comedies that do different things with form and content, breaking the confines of a traditional sitcom. For example NBC’s Thursday night has, for many years, been promoted as the night form comedy on that network. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s “Friends” and “Seinfeld” made it “must see T.V.” and now the Office and 30 Rock are making it “comedy night done right.” 30 Rock is, in many ways, not the typical sitcom, but it is indicative of a shift in comedies on network television. In the past few years sitcoms have begun to change and adapt to audiences’ changing interests. More and more, people are looking for comedy television shows that are willing to take their audiences a bit more seriously while taking themselves (or their industry) a bit less seriously.
30 Rock is a thirty minute sitcom that takes place in New York City at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. It is about a group of people that work for NBC, primarily on a fictional sketch comedy show called TGS (The Girly Show) with Tracy Jordan.
It focuses mainly on the character’s lives and not the show within the show. It stars Tina Fey as Liz Lemon the head writer of TGS. New episodes air on NBC but it is also syndicated on some Fox and Tribune Broadcasting affiliates.
To better understand 30 Rock it’s important to see how it comes together. In 2003 Michael Schneider (Variety) reported that Tina Fey cut a deal with NBC to produce a show for the network while still working for Saturday Night Live, where she was head writer. One of the stipulations (as I’m sure there were many) was that it had to be produced by NBC Studios and Broadway Video. To that end there are many hands pulling at the strings of 30 Rock, especially since NBC has two parent companies: Comast and General Electric. NBC Studios is of course owned by NBC the network Tina Fey already worked for and Broadway Video is owned by Lorne Michaels the producer and creator of SNL. Tina Fey’s Production company Little Stranger is also in the credits now. So the concept of 30 Rock was directly fueled by Fey’s experiences as a writer on SNL, which surely (in the networks eyes) qualifies her to develop a show based on it. Having Lorne Michaels attached to it of course is also logical because his experience not only in television and in comedy, but with sketch comedy specifically. Also Lorne Michaels seems to like to follow SNL alum where ever they go (just look at the credits for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Conan O’brien). Actually half of 30 Rock’s producers have worker or currently work for Saturday Night Live. As do Six of the cast member of 30 rock. Also many of the writers and cast member are Second City Alums like Tina fey or standup comedians like Judah Frielander (he plays Frank a writer on TGS). The people that bring together 30 Rock know television, but more importantly they know comedy. They know how to make it, write it , and perform it. Looking at the resumes of the people involved with 30 Rock explains a lot about the show. The show has a quick pace. They try to fit in as many jokes as they can. The pace not only allows for more jokes it allows for more variety of topics and references. This is something that would happen in stand up routine or an episode of SNL. 30 Rock also creates some over the top characters and quick catch phrases, which sketch comedy and stand up comics use to carry jokes. If a bunch of comedians and SNL alums set out to write a sitcom, the logical product would be something like 30 Rock.
Another intriguing aspect of 30 Rock is its use of product integration. Advertising is an important aspect of television. Product Integration is just another advertisers can get their money’s worth and a show can get it’s paycheck. If there was a right way to sell out, it’s the 30 Rock way. In October 2008 Emily Nussbaum (New York Magazine) wrote an article about Product Integration where she said “30 Rock has the best jokes about product integration.” That’s perfect. Make it into a joke. 30 Rock has turned advertising into a running gag on their show. They’ve rolled advertising into their act. Instead of acting like it’s organic they embrace how intrusive it is and actually make it much more organic than any other show on television. They’re making money, making a comment about the way television is made today, and they’re making a joke. If nothing else 30 Rock is efficient. For example their Snapple product placement integration worked very well. In through the show, but was not obtrusive and was introduced early in the episode.
Not everyone can get it quite right though.
There is a stark difference between the two clips. One is bulky, corny, and long. The other is short and funny. Raymond Willams said that advertising is “the confused creation of bad artisits and thinkers” (Williams 465). It seems like 30 Rock set out disprove that notion while Days of Our Lives is a living breathing example of it. So it seems 30 Rock has the potential to be a dream come true for advertisers who need the exposure and a network that needs money.
One of the biggest reason 30 Rock has stay on the air for now five season (and picked up for a sixth) besides the people that make it and its use of product integration, is it’s the critical reception. 30 Rock is praised by many critics and industry colleagues as proven by their many awards.
The show’s ratings have been less than favorable. The highest rated episode of the series was the season is the season 3 premier, which aired right about the time Tina Fey was doing her Sarah Palin impression on SNL, but the show was not able to sustain the boost. 30 Rock seems to have to have trouble reaching it’s audience and keeping it. Part of that could be the lack of promotion. The only place I’ve really seen any commercials for 30 Rock is on NBC. On a network that usually falls in last place in the ratings does it really count for anything? This seems to happen with many networks, they promote their show the most on the network and any affiliates. NBC though, doesn’t seem to even go that far. If 30 Rock is a product then it needs to be put where the right consumers will notice it. Another reason for the low rating could also be style and content of the show. The pacing is very different from other more traditional sitcoms. It goes faster and begs to be listened to. Sometimes you really have to pay attention to it, but that’s not something that appeals to everyone. Or perhaps the content makes people not want to pay attention. 30 Rock is a showbiz comedy about the lives of successful people in showbiz. It may too far removed, too unrelatable for some viewers. It seems to attract a specific audience. Perhaps it isn’t that big of an audience. It wasn’t for Fox’s Arrested Development. In many ways the show has specific audienc
e, whether it is intentional or not. 30 Rock just can’t be for everyone. The show is quite aware of that and like any good comedians they have rolled it into their “act”.
For example look at episode three in season four (entitled stone mountain). In that episode Alec Baldwin’s character Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) tells the writers of TGS that they don’t know real America, the people who “are teaching our kids, running our prisons, growing our cigarettes”. He tells them they need to learn how make the show cater to them. In order to find the real America Jack and Liz travel to Stone Mountain, Georgia. There they Comedian find Rick Wayne (played by Jeff Dunham) with his sidekick a puppet named Pumpkin. The point here is not say that that 30 Rock viewers are smart or smarter than anyone else (and I don’t think the people of 30 Rock intend that either) but to point out that 30 Rock has the tendency to attract certain viewers and repel others.
In many ways 30 Rock is the best show you’re not watching. As a comedy series NBC’s “30 Rock” is successful. It delivers pretty well on what it promises: comedy. They really pack it in. As is product, it is not as successful. It doesn’t quite bring in the audience NBC would surely like. Although it does bring them some much needed notoriety around awards season. 30 Rock has also creatively turned product placement into a running gag and maybe even an art form. 30 Rock has the potential to be the perfect show (for both network executives and comedy lovers). The show’s writers, creator, actors, and guest actors all have the potential to create great television. Unfortunately for this evolution in television sitcoms, there’s a missing link.
Whiteley, Nigel. “Toward a Throw-Away Culture. Consumerism, ‘Style Obsolescence’ and Cultural Theory in the 1950s and 1960s”
Williams, Raymond “Advertising: The Magic System”