Ray Richmond contributes to Deadline’s TV coverage.
When the NBC comedy 30 Rock leaves the air tonight after seven seasons and 139 episodes, it will be exiting a far different TV landscape than it entered. The series premiered on October 11, 2006 as an anomaly: the original vision of a single creator-producer-writer-star named Tina Fey at a time when TV actors generally stayed in front of the camera (with NBC’s The Office proving a rare exception with its double-duty writer-performers). Fey made no secret of being a writer first and an actress second, and there is little debate that her success paved the way for comedy performers dreaming of some semblance of creative control of the product. Without Fey’s 30 Rock, it’s harder to imagine the environment would have existed for a creator-star like Mindy Kaling to rise with The Mindy Project at Fox, or certainly for a daring and controversial writer-producer-star like Lena Dunham to make Girls at HBO.
That Fey was able to steer her quirky satirical tale on a broadcast network made the achievement all the more unlikely. And then to keep 30 Rock going for so many critically acclaimed seasons when its ratings rarely rose above the level of abysmal is fairly unprecedented. Rock remained, throughout its run, the little engine that could, overcoming long odds and a cancellation ax poised constantly over its head. Those with a good memory will recall that the series entered NBC’s primetime schedule with two strikes against it — as one of a pair of series launching on NBC that peered behind the scenes of a fictitious sketch comedy show. The other was of course Aaron Sorkin’s hourlong Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, which was the favorite of the two to survive due to the Sorkin pedigree. It’s the one that NBC put its marketing and promotional might behind, plastering Studio 60 on billboards in Times Square and on Sunset Boulevard. Instead, it was SNL vet Fey’s comedic creation that had the artistic legs for the long haul.
From the outset, 30 Rock boasted admirers throughout the comedy universe. Among those was Christopher Lloyd, the Frasier exec producer who would go on to co-create and executive produce Modern Family at ABC. He told Deadline on Wednesday, “30 Rock was a show we all watched and discussed and admired publicly and envied privately. We will miss both loving and hating how funny it was.” While some critics took to bashing the show in its final seasons for dropping in quality, Modern Family co-star Jesse Tyler Ferguson praised the Rock ensemble’s “perfection and hilarity and genius” during its final campaign while backstage at Sunday’s SAG Awards.
Of course, 30 Rock could never dream of the kind of ratings that Modern Family generates for ABC. It was often dismissed as a niche cable show trapped on a mainstream network, a bastion of showbiz in-jokes targeted to coastal sensibilities — predictably, the middle of the country ignored it to the end. Yet the anemic household ratings and consistently low numbers in key demos somehow failed to kill off this series. Why didn’t it? Robert Carlock, a 30 Rock exec producer/co-showrunner and Fey’s production partner in her company Little Stranger, hopes that the TV business will take note of the show’s survival at NBC in spite of low traditional viewership. “One thing that the broadcast networks are not, to my mind, is charitable institutions,” Carlock said. “I hope 30 Rock can (help to show) that the standard narrative about ratings probably needs to be re-examined and changed.”
Carlock was referring to the DVR audience not watching the show live and NBC including the data in the overall sample. “If you look at us solely in terms of traditional measurement, no way do we stay on for seven years without something else going on,” he believes. “That overnight number clearly isn’t almighty. If it were, it makes no sense that a show that’s as expensive as we were would stick around as long as we did. We had to be making people some money.” Indeed, some years it seemed 30 Rock and The Office were the only things keeping the lights on at NBCUniversal, given the creative and viewership quagmire in which the network found itself. “We were either the wrecking ball or the repair crew,” Carlock surmises. It’s also noteworthy that the series grew to become a reflection of NBC’s woes in more ways than one, with its spoofing of the real-life NBC merger with Comcast in the fictitious acquisition on 30 Rock of NBC from GE by Kabletown. So not only did the show survive; it did so while chowing down on the network hand that fed it.
Perhaps the single pioneering element that has set 30 Rock apart — aside from the brilliant cast led by Fey and multiple Emmy winner Alec Baldwin, the superb writing and the deadpan sensibility — has been Fey herself, proving that a woman could run the show and star in it, too. Fey followed in the creative footsteps of writer-performers like Jerry Seinfeld, who has a writing credit on all 172 episodes of Seinfeld. Fey has one on all 139 episodes of 30 Rock as well (coincidentally, 139 is the same episode total for NBC’s other sitcom with Rock in the title, 3rd Rock From The Sun). Carlock emphasizes that Fey is “very proud” of what she’s been able to accomplish on the series in terms of control and involvement, but that it should be more the norm than an isolated example. “The fact that Tina did the show the way she wanted to for seven years on broadcast is just crazy,” he says. “I’d like to think there’s some connection between what Tina was doing and the emergence of Lena (Dunham) and Mindy (Kaling), who are both super talented. But I’ll tell you what we’d love is if our show could be used going forward as an example of the way things ought to work, to show that the network landscape isn’t just this vast wasteland.”
Where do Fey and Carlock go from here? Well, they won’t be hurting for work. As Fey said backstage at the SAG Awards, “I’m flying to London in March to shoot the next Muppet Movie. Then I’m starring with Steve Carell in a new comedy called Mail Order Groom. Then there’s the overall NBC deal [with Carlock] to develop another TV show.” In other words, 30 Rock helped to send Fey’s career into the stratosphere. And as has come to be the new norm, she’ll have no problem shifting between screens big and small.