IN 3O ROCK, writer and producer Tina Fey has created a darkly comical portrait of network television. It’s a world occupied by narcissists, slackers and those who couldn’t get into law school. A place where people work with dried vomit caked on their desks. It’s a shameful profession. Parents of TV writers lie to their friends about how their kids make a living. Calamities abound.
In her nine years at Saturday Night Live, Ms. Fey had ample opportunity to observe a long line of that breed of NBC person: the Alpha Page.
And so, into the moral hell-flames of 30 Rock, Ms. Fey flung a fictionalized version of this particularly eager specimen of the network ecosystem—a character named Kenneth the Page.
Surrounded by his jaded colleagues, Kenneth (played by comedian Jack McBrayer) is a slack-jawed, sweet-hearted yokel. He is also seemingly the last guy in the building who still believes that television is a noble calling.
For his trouble, Kenneth’s hope and optimism are continuously preyed upon by his colleagues. His coworkers lie to him. They call his tours boring. Through it all, Kenneth clings to his love for NBC.
In the 18th century, the French satirist Voltaire used the character Candide to explore just how much suffering “a young lad blessed by nature with the most agreeable manners” can endure before losing faith in a benevolent universe. Kenneth is Tina’s Candide.
It’s a particularly good joke in 2009 when the notion of unwavering hope in one’s professional life—banking! Manufacturing! Retail! Media! NBC!—seems particularly absurd. After three seasons, Kenneth the Page has yet to fully crack.
“We pages are accustomed to danger,” said Kenneth in a recent episode. A few moments later, New Yorkers spray-paint his back.
How much will Kenneth be willing to suffer at the hands of the craven, cynical, self-interested personalities in the television business, the show seems to be asking us.
To suffer this ambitious fate, however, may not even be an option for most of the Kenneths presently running around in the real “30 Rock.”
Brenda Anim was fresh out of college at SUNY Binghamton, and the Dow Jones was high, when she signed the forms and got her uniform in the fall of 2007 and began work as a page.
Most of the job, Ms. Anim soon learned, was to lead walking tours of NBC’s headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Visitors paid $19.25 a person for an hour and 10 minutes inside 30 Rock. For their part, pages got to ingest and recite endless amounts of trivia about the majesty and magic of broadcasting at NBC.
Over the course of the year, Ms. Anim completed two assignments. She worked at CNBC, paging for Suze Orman’s show; and she worked for the department that produces NBC’s promotions. Along the way, she networked with a bunch of good people and developed some solid production skills.
Like all NBC pages, Ms. Anim had high expectations about where the program would eventually land her. Applicants were told that a high percentage of graduates promptly scored jobs at NBC. The rest were scooped up by rival networks. During low moments, pages could console themselves by reciting the names of top TV veterans—Ted Koppel! Regis Philbin!—who had started as NBC pages.
By the winter of 2008, as she finished up her year as a page, she began to feel anxious. When she had first matriculated to NBC, the graduating pages all seemed to land jobs in television. But as the economy turned south and NBC began shedding employees at an alarming rate, more and more pages seemed to be piling up at the unemployment line. What would she do next?
Finally, some three months after leaving the program, Ms. Anim landed a monthlong job working for NBC’s in-house production unit. In a recent telephone interview with The Observer, Ms. Anim said she loved her experience as a page, and even though she was feeling anxious about the future of the business, she felt committed to sticking with television.
“I’m still determined to do what I want to do for a living,” said Ms. Anim.
THE RAGE OF a disillusioned page tends to burn quietly. They are, by training, a discreet and loyal group. But in recent months, a pack of fed-up ex-pages have banded together to make their suffering known to upper NBC management. At the same time, they have struggled to keep their unhappiness away from the public eye.