Tonight NBC will air a specially produced 30 Rock reunion, bringing back the stars of the NBC series — which ended in 2013 — for a socially-distanced reunion amid a pandemic that has left TV with fewer and fewer options for original programming. The 30 Rock reunion has been described by NBCUniversal as an "all-audience upfront," replacing the network's annual spring presentation to prospective advertisers, which was cancelled this year amid the COVID-19 shutdowns. While it remains to be seen exactly what shape the special will take, we can't help but shake the feeling that an all-audience upfront sounds a lot like the network fall preview specials of yesteryear.
If you're not familiar with the tradition of network fall preview specials, you really missed out on one of the more particular quirks in television history. Back when there were three, maaaaaybe four major networks to choose from, television held a far more captive audience. And in the days before widely available internet, knowing which show was going to be on in an hour was a challenge, much less which shows were debuting or returning when the new season kicked off in September. So, beginning in the 1960s, the networks fell into a tradition of airing annual primetime specials heralding everything that they were going to be airing in the upcoming TV season. Functionally, they were very much like the upfronts, only they were selling to potential viewers instead of advertisers. At their most basic, the specials were sizzle reels of the network's programming highlights, as was the case with this ABC special from 1985 touting the returns of Who's the Boss? and Moonlighting as well as the premiere of Growing Pains.
Often networks got creative and dipped into their deep rosters of contracted talent to help put the network's best foot forward. These specials were crass commercialism at their finest, of course. Advertisements given the sheen of scripted programming. But at their most brazen, these specials are real artifacts, perhaps none more so than the 1988 NBC fall preview, which wrapped itself up in the network's partnership with Disney. Beyond the sheer dissonance of watching Disney partnered with anyone but ABC, this special is a tutorial on what these events could be like with the network's full chutzpah behind them: hosted by Betty White (starring on The Golden Girls at the time) and featuring the stars of NBC series like 227, A Different World, and Empty Nest, the special also attracted the talents of Johnny Cash, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Zemeckis (the latter two to help hype the special's premiere of a Who Framed Roger Rabbit? cartoon).
This was the kind of sway that TV networks held back then. At the height of the fall preview special era, networks would air primetime specials advertising the new season's Saturday morning cartoons lineup. Here's NBC again — truly the industry leader in doing the absolute most — with a 1987 Saturday morning preview special that took the form of a murder mystery starring ALF and Jackée. Is there a more 1987 pairing in the entire universe than ALF and Jackée? Betty White, ever the company woman, is on hand for this one too, as is Shannen Doherty (who was starring on the NBC family drama Our House at the time), all interspersed with promo clips for Gummi Bears and The Smurfs.
These specials would linger over the years, but as TV viewers got more savvy, information became more prevalent, and network programming hours got more valuable, they waned. The upfronts still sometimes features skits and little presentations among their talent, but nothing aired on TV. One highlight that may serve as a preview of what we can expect to see tonight is this 2012 30 Rock/Jimmy Fallon musical preview for its hottest shows:
With the continued production shutdown, of course, the coming fall season is set to look different from any other. As such, tonight's special is expected to be less about the new fall TV schedule, and more a celebration of all things NBCUniversal, which encompasses NBC itself, a cadre of cable brands including Bravo, E!, Oxygen, Syfy and Telemundo, and the company's just-launched streaming platform, Peacock. If nothing else, the stars of 30 Rock will be there to play the Betty White, Jackée, and ALF of 2020 for our synergistic pleasure.
30 Rock: A One-Time Special airs tonight at 8:00 PM ET on NBC.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.