Jon Bon Jovi kissed Ann Curry on the cheek. It was a chilly morning in mid-October outside the Today studios at Rockefeller Plaza. Ms. Curry was wearing a peacoat and dark stockings. Mr. Bon Jovi had on jeans and aviator sunglasses. Matt Lauer stood between them. They had news!
Mr. Lauer explained to the guests on the plaza and the viewers at home that, henceforth, Mr. Bon Jovi would be serving as the first artist in NBC’s brand new “artist in residence” program. “What does that exactly mean?” asked Mr. Lauer. The rock star smiled. “A corner office next to you,” he replied.
Mr. Bon Jovi went on to explain that his eponymous band had a new album to sell and that for the next two months he would be appearing (exclusively!) on a wide range of NBC broadcast and cable channels to promote it. Along the way, he would be hosting Saturday Night Live, doing sports, doing news, basking in James Lipton’s marveling gaze on Inside the Actors Studio and playing a concert for Today at Rockefeller Plaza.
Not to mention, performing at various birthday parties for the children of NBC staffers, joked Mr. Lauer. And bar mitzvahs. Maybe a Christmas party or two?
Enough with the teasing! Ms. Curry observed that Mr. Bon Jovi was “somebody trying to say something that’s very important to hear.”
Mr. Bon Jovi concurred. He explained that recently the world had changed. Economies had teetered. And Mr. Bon Jovi and his guitarist, Richie Sambora, had written a song reflecting both the gravity of contemporary American life and also our renewed sense of optimism.
“I couldn’t have written this song with Richie a year ago simply because when the world crashed, we sort of all had to rub our noses and the stars were in our eyes from the bang we took,” said Mr. Bon Jovi. “But now I think that that spirit of the American people is picking themselves up and getting on with it.”
The world premiere of the video had aired moments earlier on NBC’s Today, as per the prerogatives of the “artist in residence” program, and not on, say, VH1 or MTV.
FOR MOST OF human history, artist-in-residence programs has been the provenance of museums (the Studio Museum in Harlem, PS1, etc.), universities (Cooper Union, Pratt), and nonprofit institutions (the National Park Service!). Yet the fact that NBC, under the guidance of chief Jeff Zucker, is now wrapping a multimillion-dollar album promotion in the cloak of institutional philanthropy for the arts somehow makes perfect sense.
Good-natured gimmickry, supersize corporate synergy, the promise of better television through better marketing efficiencies—all are hallmarks of NBC circa 2009. It was hard to watch the announcement without thinking of how Tina Fey’s 30 Rock might someday satirize the idea of a commercially successful frontman immersing himself in the bosom of a multinational company to further refine his artistic vision, promote his new album and talk up the wonders of the Peacock.
You could almost feel a future episode of 30 Rock taking shape … almost see an inspired Jon Bon Jovi pacing feverishly between acoustic instruments in a studio at 30 Rockefeller Plaza while a pack of Midwestern tourists look on rapturously and listen to the cheerful patter of Kenneth the Page: “Bon Jovi has sold more albums than … he first played the Today show in …” You could almost see Jon Bon Jovi, on the 52nd floor, considering potential branding opportunities; Jack Donaghy whispering in his ear that the Rolling Stones never got to put their name on a microwave oven.
Ever since July of 2008, when then NBC entertainment chief Ben Silverman made his famous pronouncement—“We’re managing for margins not ratings”—the real-life NBC (like Tina Fey’s parody of it) has taken on the reputation of a network in which business-side initiatives often run amok. In recent months, a growing chorus of detractors have piled on. In early October, acclaimed television writer John Wells released a statement, after NBC canceled his series Southland, noting that he was “disappointed that NBC no longer has the time periods available to support the kind of critically acclaimed series that was for so many years the hallmark of their success.” A few weeks later, Warner Brothers chief Barry Meyer criticized NBC for replacing its traditional 10 p.m. scripted series with the strategically low-cost option of The Jay Leno Show. Such a move, Mr. Meyer suggested, was bad for the network’s image as a cultivator of high-minded dramas.