In recent years, the phrase “comfort TV” has taken on a whole new meaning; rather than just filling the last couple of hours before bed with pleasant entertainment, television increasingly goes out of its way to make you feel good about yourself for tuning in. In a recent essay for n+1, Andrea Long Chu described the allure of glancingly political television—the idea, she writes, that “watching television can be a kind of political act.” Orange Is the New Black, for example, wants you to feel that by watching, you’re doing something. But you’re not. You’re simply participating in “a very special episode of belonging.”
As Chu notes, the political texture of this kind of television, which is often slathered on top of otherwise mediocre shows like a mild sauce, is not new. After all, the political affect of “woke” television isn’t confined to the fact that these stories tell you you’re right for believing the things that you believe—it also comes from feeling like part of a community with its own rigorous norms and values. And what better place to find that sense of belonging than on a network where everybody knows your name?
Cheers—one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time and the foundation of NBC’s run of “Must See TV,” a branding term most commonly used to refer to the network’s once enormously successful lineup of Thursday night programming—depicted a haven for sad people whose lives weren’t going the way they wanted: Sam, the recovering alcoholic bar owner; Diane, the pompous grad student whose life as a waitress entailed constant humiliation; Norm, who spent hours at the bar every night to avoid going home to his wife. (The less said about the unbearably pathetic Cliff Clavin, the better.) The show was just one of NBC’s early communities of lovable losers cast out from the rest of society. There would later be the gay-straight friendships of Will & Grace, the workplace frenzies of Pawnee’s department of Parks and Recreation and The Office of Dunder-Mifflin, and, of course, the overgrown student community of Community.
What better place to find that sense of belonging than on a network where everybody knows your name?
Obviously, a television network will never be a force for good in the world. But networks are brands, which is to say that, broadly speaking, they still want to be thought of as “good.” Good shows, good politics, good laughs. Their eventual goal is to get viewers to trust the network to pick shows for them, rather than going to the trouble of cobbling together their own schedule. (This is one motivation behind Netflix’s habit of absorbing other networks’ programming as its own “Originals.”) And NBC has been remarkably successful at this game—in part by mythologizing its own history. An entire arc of Seinfeld was devoted to Jerry and George pitching a lightly fictionalized version of Seinfeld itself to NBC; Warren Littlefield, the president of NBC Entertainment throughout the back half of Seinfeld’s run, was played by Bob Balaban. In 2012, Littlefield published Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV, a perfectly fine if hagiographic oral history of that era at the network. Then, of course, there was the entirety of 30 Rock, which took place in a fantasy version of NBC and focused on the titular office building as a place that accumulated show-biz legends, refracted through the trivia-obsessed character of NBC page Kenneth. This is where the monkey was on The Today Show!
Reading Top of the Rock, you might get the impression that the business of running NBC was just a fun game, full of chummy, boys-in-the-trenches camaraderie. Everyone gambled enormous sums of money on shows because they believed in them hard enough. In the book’s dedication, Littlefield writes, “Behind every successful television series is a development executive who, at some point in the insanity of the development process, put his ass on the line so that the show might live.”
Networks are less influential now than they used to be—over seventy-six million people watched the Seinfeld finale, while even the more popular broadcast series these days tend to pull less than a quarter of that number—but they still help to set the agenda for the easily digestible version of the national conversation. And outside of its celebrated sitcom past, NBC’s decision-making has been less than ideal. Recently, NBC made a huge bet on Megyn Kelly, whose illustrious career in broadcast journalism ended over an apparently trend-setting blackface scandal. The company paid Kelly a very not-nice $69 million to not work, just a few weeks before more than a thousand jobs in journalism nationwide were eliminated by hungry executives. Even after Kelly parted ways with NBC, her ghost reared its perfectly coiffed head in Savannah Guthrie’s softball interview with Nick Sandmann, the teen boy whose PR firm-backed racism captured a heavily produced version of the American imagination.
It would be wrong to argue that TV news ever presented a broad swath of ideas; for years, it was dominated by the Big Three broadcast networks, all of which are frequently lumped together as part of the “liberal media”—especially since the founding of Fox News in 1996. In reality, these allegedly liberal networks always covered the same narrow, “reasonable” political territory. And the ideological differences between them have become even less distinct; the networks have begun to box each other in. (ABC, NBC, and CBS, for example, all tried to have their cake and eat it too by agreeing to carry the president’s recent primetime rambling about the government shutdown—then tut-tutting it immediately after.) But the juxtaposition of NBC’s entertainment programming and its journalism has left it with a reputation mired in its storied sitcom history, even as its news-gathering endeavors have taken center stage. Two days before his inauguration, then-President-elect Trump tweeted, “No wonder the Today Show on biased @NBC is doing so badly compared to its glorious past. Little credibility!”
Over the past few years, NBC’s political myopia has become increasingly obvious. In the (relatively) halcyon days of the early 2016 presidential primary season, Saturday Night Live allegedly went out of its way to make executive producer Lorne Michaels’s acquaintance Donald Trump more “likable” when he hosted the show—ten months before SNL alumnus Jimmy Fallon played with Trump’s hair on The Tonight Show, a program whose history is largely response for the noxious whiff of legend that accompanies otherwise cookie cutter late-night TV. More recently, SNL also transformed Rep. Dan Crenshaw, the former Navy SEAL and dumb-as-rocks administrator of a racist Facebook group, into a goofy media celebrity. And in January, NBC News told its staffers not to call comments about white supremacy made by Republican Congressman Steve King during an interview with the New York Times racist, instructing reporters to rely instead on the mealy-mouthed strategy of noting that someone else called them racist, before they were swiftly pressured into changing their standards.
Meanwhile, it was revealed that Matt Lauer, one of the network’s biggest stars, had used a button in his office to lock the door and clandestinely harass female employees—and that Andy Lack, the chairman of NBC News, squashed reporter Ronan Farrow’s effort to report out the story of Harvey Weinstein’s rampant sexual harassment and assault. (In a tweeted statement, Farrow described NBC as “filled with talented, dedicated journalists.”) Of course, NBC is also the network that aired The Apprentice and helped turn Trump into a television star in the first place, steadfastly maintaining his image as a charismatic tycoon even as he became more and more obviously a demented racist. And the infamous Access Hollywood tape was just one short clip from an archive that undoubtedly contains many hundreds more hours of material. Pundits often wonder aloud whether the ubiquity of social media might tank the election prospects or careers of millennials, whose lives have been lived under constant social media surveillance. If only their Instagram stories had been produced by Mark Burnett.
Burnett, of course, is not formally affiliated with NBC—his longest-running series, Survivor, airs on CBS, and he’s worked with several other networks. But the entertainment industry is near-monopolistic enough that most of the power players have worked together in various permutations. Before the begrudgingly disgraced Les Moonves became an executive at CBS, he was president and CEO of Warner Brothers Television, where he worked with NBC to greenlight E.R. and Friends. Jeff Zucker, the current president of CNN, oversaw NBC’s post-Must See TV nosedive, including putting The Apprentice on the air.
So no, NBC is not the only offender. Every network is simultaneously the birthplace of some meaningful elements of pop culture and one of the worst places in the world. But something feels uniquely cynical about the many betrayals of NBC, the network that brought you the working-class camaraderie of Cheers, the nihilistic alliances of Seinfeld, the feel-good blanket of Parks and Recreation, The Good Place, and, now, everyone’s favorite self-aware cop show, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. NBC is the only network that has invested so heavily in an image of itself as a home for hot, fun misfits.
Part of 30 Rock’s appeal was to posit TV production as a world where everything was, fundamentally, garbage. No one took the show’s central sketch show TGS seriously, and no one thought you were supposed to; its final season focused on NBC president Jack Donaghy’s effort to “tank” the network by creating insane programming like God Cop, a show where Jack himself played God, who was also a cop. (We now have God Friended Me on CBS.) But it was still flattering to watch the scrambling on 30 Rock and feel both a part of and above it. In the world of the sitcom, NBC could present itself a scrappy underdog, a weird place where weird TV got made. It was an institution deserving of the love heaped on it by Kenneth, whose obsessive historical knowledge of television enabled him to eventually become the network’s president.
Every network is simultaneously the birthplace of some meaningful elements of pop culture and one of the worst places in the world.
The trick of turning a large company with enormous influence over American politics into a misfit sitcom family with no material role in shaping how people live requires a powerful enchantment; in some ways, it mirrors the increasingly popular rhetorical move of describing the workplace itself as a family—in order to justify poor working conditions and denying employees benefits. It’s no coincidence that as work has steadily moved from a means to an end to an end in itself, more and more sitcom families have moved from the home to The Office. This shift dovetails nicely with the rest of NBC’s more straightforward “politics,” which serve only to prop up the powerful. To Jimmy Fallon, any guest is just another person to have their hair ruffled. Calling Steve King a racist is just as bad as his long history of less than covertly supporting white supremacy. And money’s never an object, at least not for the men in charge. When Comcast bought a majority stake in NBC from General Electric, the new owners forced out the long-mocked Jeff Zucker—and handed him a massive payout, reportedly to the tune of between $30 and $40 million. Bob Wright, the former longtime president, CEO, and chairman of NBC, once lived in Trump Tower, where his apartment was the site of the meetings about making Seinfeld run for more seasons.
Taken on their own, none of these incidents feels especially egregious. The people involved probably have a hundred banal excuses for why they had to act the way they did in each case, and they’re probably perfectly nice about it. But taken in the aggregate, it becomes obvious what the network is doing—capitalizing on their own popular self-mythologies while giving themselves plausible, self-righteous deniability. Here, the dark side of 30 Rock’s knowing pessimism comes into view: when everyone on TV is an idiot, it can be easier to forgive the idiots whose decisions happen to, say, damage the lives of millions or keep the country in a state of endless war.
It might be a stretch to say that NBC’s split personality is the result of a conscious branding decision. Like so many other similar accidents, its reputation as the “offbeat” network feels more like an inevitability of the systems that brought it into being—the demand for easy feelings of politics and belonging, blended with the rapacious appetite of capital—systems that continue to influence the network, as the network continues to influence the country. Considering the history of NBC until now, it feels like a minor miracle that Trump was never on 30 Rock. It doesn’t really matter. He was there in spirit.