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.
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.”
In short, anyone who says that the glory days are over (be it Must See TV or Slippery When Wet) is backward-looking and delusional. The world keeps moving forward, everyone has to evolve. Deal with it.
It’s an attitude that is bound to ruffle some feathers along the way. Sometime later this month, according to an article in The New York Times, Brian Williams will interview Mr. Bon Jovi for a piece on the Nightly News, highlighting the band’s charitable efforts. The inclusion of the news division in what is primarily an entertainment promotion is sure to raise hackles among those who believe that the Nightly News should be sacrosanct from network interference.
You could almost see Jon Bon Jovi considering potential branding opportunities; Jack Donaghy whispering in his ear that the Rolling Stones never got to put their name on a microwave oven.
“It sounds like the human extension of product placement,” Lawrence Grossman, the former president of NBC News, recently told The Observer. “I am dismayed that they are infesting the news division with that kind of requirement. But it does comport with the current trend to cheapen the formerly more-or-less pristine network news operations, which are now filled with softball features.”
In the days since the initial announcement, Today and NBC’s local news Web sites have kept up a slow trickle of items reporting on the comings and goings of their artist.
“So how many grade schools can boast a rock star at the grand opening of their new playground?” anchor Natalie Morales asked on Today on Oct. 20. “NBC’s artist in residence, Jon Bon Jovi, thanked volunteers Monday in Camden, New Jersey, where his charitable foundation is building playgrounds, green spaces and affordable housing.”
In the weeks to come, the Bon Jovi–thon promises to kick into high gear at NBC. In the meantime, NBC staffers have a few more days to make their new artist feel at home. “Welcome to the family,” Mr. Lauer told Mr. Bon Jovi on the morning of the kickoff.
That same day, Ms. Curry gave NBC viewers her take on the network’s new artist. “Very cool,” said Ms. Curry. “He is cool.