On Nov. 1, in an interview with Ben Grossman of Broadcasting & Cable, Jay Leno mulled over the concerns. “I find there’s a lot of anger at NBC,” said Mr. Leno. “But it’s like I say to the people who write the dramas: If I weren’t doing this, it would be Dateline five nights a week or reality shows.”
“So what does NBC do?” Mr. Leno said later in the same interview. “If you are making buggy whips and no one is buying buggies anymore, do you keep making buggy whips? I don’t know. This is an economic decision.”
At the heart of much of the criticism of NBC is a romantic conception of TV, which is fueled, in part, by nostalgia for the network’s bygone golden age. After all, it was NBC under the programming chief Brandon Tartikoff (and later Warren Littlefield) who gave us The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, The Golden Girls, Seinfeld, Frasier, ER and Friends. How did NBC go, in such a short period of time, from creating iconic American art to creating buggy whips?
Mr. Zucker has been hearing the same criticism for years. Not that he seems to mind. If anything, he appears to take a certain pleasure from it. Years ago, when he first took over the entertainment side of the network, NBC’s first big hit (in the post-Seinfeld era) was the gross-out reality show Fear Factor. While ratings soared, critics went bananas. “They moaned and gnashed their teeth over NBC’s sellout of its image as the ‘quality network,’” Bill Carter wrote in Desperate Networks. “They acted as though a national treasure had been violated. Zucker laughed all the way to first place.”
Some eight years later, NBC is now mired in fourth place and reportedly on the verge of being sold. But Mr. Zucker, it seems, keeps on laughing.
ACCORDING TO TV historian Ron Simon, the last time NBC had something akin to an artist-in-residence musician was in the 1930s and 1940s. At the time, David Sarnoff, the founder of NBC, made the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini a big part of the nascent network’s brand—building the NBC Symphony Orchestra around the critically acclaimed interpreter of the likes of Verdi and Beethoven. Now, Mr. Zucker has revived the tradition, albeit in a slightly more populist iteration. Naming Jon Bon Jovi NBC’s artist in residence is not only potentially good business for the network’s coffers, but also, arguably, an opportunity for Mr. Zucker to land a gleeful jab in the belly of the self-appointed standards police. Move over Toscanini. Richie Sambora is in the house!
“When I hear ‘artist in residence’ I think about, well, artists,” the media theorist Douglas Rushkoff recently wrote to The Observer via email. “I mean, even a Brian Eno or someone like that would give them the street cred you are thinking of. If they were really in this to help their creative legacy, then they would have chosen someone a bit more highbrow, I think.”
Currently, a new promotional documentary about Bon Jovi, called When We Were Beautiful, is in rotation on Showtime (apparently, it was grandfathered in, before NBC’s artist-in-residence exclusivity agreement took hold). The film primarily takes place during the band’s 2007 Lost Highway tour. Along the way, Mr. Bon Jovi comes across as a clear-eyed, hard-nosed pragmatist. At one point, he invites some potential business partners to see him in England so that they don’t mistake him for the cliché of a guy in a rock band. “Trust me, that’s not it,” said Mr. Bon Jovi. “I am the CEO of a major corporation who has been running a brand for 25 years.”
In the end, it was perhaps inevitable that Mr. Bon Jovi would turn to NBC to try and pioneer a new way of promoting his albums, of advancing his brand. According to NBC sources, years ago, Mr. Bon Jovi met Ben Silverman on the Hamptons circuit. The two quickly became pals. And, whenever he got the opportunity, Mr. Silverman would casually talk up the wonderful multiplatform synergistic possibilities at NBC. That Mr. Silverman eventually left the network before he could bring a full-on partnership with Mr. Bon Jovi to fruition did nothing to diminish the strong relationships between Mr. Bon Jovi and the rest of the network, which had resulted from years of solid performances on SNL and Today.
And in Mr. Zucker, Mr. Bon Jovi may have found a kindred spirit. They are both self-styled change agents who have little patience for misty-eyed romantics or effete, brooding snobs. “When you are as commercially successful as we’ve been for as long as we’ve been, people want to hit you in the nose,” said Mr. Bon Jovi. “That’s human nature.”