Let’s see. Which network aired the Olympics again? Was it CBS? Or perhaps The WB? No, wait, it’s coming back to us now. That’s right! It was NBC. Yes, NBC! NBC! NBC! And in case you weren’t listening: That’s ENNNN! BEEEE! CEEEE!
When not forced to focus on those pesky gymnasts and shot-putters, America’s No. 1 network was doing what it does better than anyone else: indulging in a multimillion-dollar orgy of self-promotion. NBC didn’t miss a chance to strut its Peacock logo, or to hawk its fledgling news channel MSNBC, or to hype such must-see fall wannabes as Men Behaving Badly and Suddenly Susan. Total preening time: a record-breaking 552 promotional spots (more than double the number of its No. 2 advertiser, Coca-Cola).
The media may wince at NBC’s self-aggrandizing display, but they also have to concede that this kind of brazen chest thumping works — especially with a platform like the Olympics. Especially these Olympics. NBC’s softer approach to the Games (heavy on PEOPLE magazine-like feel-good profiles, light on hard-hitting news) not only snagged an estimated $70 million in profits and captured 25 percent more viewers than 1992’s Games but also provided a comfy setting for its snappy fall-show promos. As NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield boasts, ”I heard from all my counterparts at the other networks, and they said, ‘I’m watching the Olympics and I’m in great pain because I find I want to see all these [fall] shows. You’re ruining my summer.”’
Even before the Atlanta Games, NBC held the gold medal in self-puffery. Whether annoyingly over-the-top (like last season’s blitz for the miniseries The Beast, including the grating ticker tape that ran during NewsRadio) or brilliantly simple (like the infectious phrase ”Must See TV”), the network’s promotional campaigns and corporate identity are regarded as the sharpest in the biz. ”I think that at this point in time, you’d have to say [NBC’s promos] are state-of-the-art,” says Porter Bibb, media specialist with investment firm Ladenburg Thalmann & Co.
The upshot is Nielsen nirvana. No doubt, NBC has some of the strongest shows — especially the killer Thursday-night lineup — which is a big reason the network reigned supreme last year and will continue to do so next season, according to industry analysts. But attracting 30 million viewers and a small army of advertisers (NBC already has a reported record-busting $2 billion in advertising commitments for fall 1996) requires more than magical programming. It requires marketing wizardry.
For decades, networks have been chockful of ads from cola and snack companies obsessed with eye-catching logos and snappy slogans. But TV brass never thought to apply this tactic to themselves. Arguably, they never really needed to. ”There were only three networks,” says Vince Manze, senior vice president of advertising and promotion for NBC. ”If you wanted to see a show, you flipped three times and you caught it.”