When you enter the NBC Universal Experience, the first thing you see is a wall of screens, none of them playing anything someone ten years ago would have recognized as TV. There are in-supermarket video/advertising displays and in-taxi displays. NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker poses in front of a stand of multicolored ticker screens that are spooling marketese catchphrases: “Local Media… CONTENT package…” There are cellphone displays and touch screens. There is a screening room showing clips from NBC Universal movies like the upcoming Mummy sequel.
And every once in a while there’s a hint—a picture of Michael Scott from The Office, a video recording of Masi Oka from Heroes, to remind you that, deep within this multimedia pitch to advertisers, there is a television network in there somewhere.
Welcome to the future of TV as NBC Universal sees it, or at least the future of selling TV.
NBC announced its 2008-09 broadcasting plans at a conference last month. So for its portion of the “upfronts”—where broadcasters traditionally unveil their fall schedules and begin selling ads against them—it instead put on the Experience, a kind of trade show to persuade advertisers that the company—not just NBC, but GE’s larger media-entertainment unit—has myriad media outlets to sell advertising on, from broadcast to Internet to cable to cellphones.
Which is the sort of thing you want to remind people of when your TV network itself is in fourth place.
The Experience is a big kind of electronic advertising tunnel with an entrance at the beginning and a cocktail party with premium liquor and passed hors d’oeuvres at the end. To get from one to another, you must slog with a glut of advertising employees through a gauntlet that includes Deal or No Deal models handing out tchotchkes; charts listing the number of people who see an episode of Heroes on broadcast, cable, streaming, download, video-on-demand and mobile devices; Janice Dickinson taking pictures with guests for her Oxygen reality show; American Gladiators fighting with quarterstaffs on a platform; and flat-screens, flat-screens, flat-screens, pulsing at you from every available square inch of wall. Meanwhile, hired staff cruise the hallways, inviting you to play an NBCU trivia game on touch screens strapped to their torsos, which looks just as awkward as it sounds, yet not half as sexy.
It is a claustrophobic, blaring and overstimulating experience, giving you a feeling simultaneously of overconsuming and of being consumed. Passing through congested arteries and through the occasional clearing, it feels like being eaten by the electronic media, passed through its digestive system, and excreted at the other end. Britney Spears’ life must feel remarkably like this.
In the various displays and exhibits, meanwhile, pretty much every part of the NBCU corporate buffalo is put to use. Maria Bartiromo of CNBC is doing a stand-up report from a dais at the Experience, observing the event while being on display. There’s a live “Experience TV” interview with The Office’s John Krasinski. And on a stage-in-the-round at the end of the Experience, look!—Chris Matthews is doing a live Hardball interview with NBC News political director Chuck Todd, as captured, in true Experience multimedia fashion, on my crappy cellphone photo at left.
The message of the whole thing? Um, I guess that NBC Universal owns a lot of media properties. And a lot of flat-screen TVs. But while there’s something to the message that advertising with a big media company is now about much more than buying 30-second ads—an argument networks have to make now, given that their primetime audiences are cratering—it’s pretty much lost here, between the media overload of spectacles and the simple shoulder-to-shoulder crowding that has the ad bunch determinedly trudging through in hopes of getting to the bar, and a breath of fresh air, as soon as possible.
Of course, if the ultimate goal is—as it always was in the old-school upfronts—to simply begin the social lubrication and the ad selling as quick as possible, then mission accomplished. Maybe a cold gin-and-tonic is still one of the most effective media of all. I have to go home, though, so I breeze quickly through the cocktail party after a last stop at the exit of the Experience, where the car KITT from the upcoming Knight Rider remake is sitting by a sample gas pump equipped with a “Fuelcast Network” video display. “I have a carbon footprint the size of Shaquille O’Neal’s sneaker!” KITT brags.
I pack up my complimentary Today Show “Go Green” environmentally-conscious reusable tote and head for home.