September 23, 2020

The "It's About TV" Interview: William Bartlett, author of NBC and 30 Rock: A View from Inside

This latest edition of the "It's About TV" Interview is one that I think you'll really enjoy, as we dip into the history of one of America's greatest television networks and look at a wonderful coffee table book. 

William Bartlett has been with NBC since Seinfeld was in originals and the company consisted of NBC and CNBC. Fresh out of grad school with a PhD in English, he was hired in 1995 as the press department’s editor, where he embarked on a futile effort to get publicists to use the Chicago Manual of Style. After a few months though, he had a lucky break when then-CEO Bob Wright’s speechwriter left the company and Bartlett was tapped to replace him. For the next decade (not counting a short stint as Sumner Redstone’s speechwriter), he worked closely with Wright as the company grew into the diversified media giant it is today. Today, he heads up NBCUniversal’s in-house corporate video production team, which produces videos for clients around the company. He still writes or edits the occasional speech. Most significantly for our purposes today, he serves as NBC’s in-house historian, curating exhibits in the employee commissary and the 30 Rock lobby. To share the company’s enormous legacy more widely, he recently wrote a history book, NBC and 30 Rock: A View from Inside.

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 It's About TV: How do you get what sounds like the coolest job in the world? 

William Bartlett: I went to graduate school, thinking I’d be a college English teacher, and I’ve managed to end up with a job that is probably as close as you can get to being in academia while being in the corporate world. For most of my career my focus has been on executive communications: speeches, op-eds, annual report copy, and so on. But when NBC turned 75 in 2001, we partnered with John Wiley & Sons on a coffee-table book. A book packager was hired to create the book, and I was tasked with being the corporate point person in charge of reviewing and approving all the copy and photos. That taught me a lot about the company’s history, and I ended up not just fact-checking and approving the copy but writing portions of the book myself.

Fast-forward to 2011, when we were acquired by Comcast. In the months leading up to the close of the deal, the incoming CEO, Steve Burke, asked me to put together a fact sheet that employees would get on “day one,” which would explain what the new company consisted of. I agreed that employees wouldn’t necessarily know all the new company’s holdings, but it struck me that they really didn’t know the histories of the three remarkable companies that were now joined together: NBC, Universal, and Comcast. So instead of doing what I’d been asked, I wrote a short book on the history of the three businesses, with the glue holding them together being the fact that all three were founded by visionary outsiders: David Sarnoff (NBC), Carl Laemmle (Universal), and Ralph Roberts (Comcast). I showed it to Steve and he (fortunately for me) loved the idea. The rest is history, you could say. I became the go-to guy for info about NBC’s history, and I started getting more and more history-related assignments, from curating art for the hallways, to building a website, to putting together exhibits.

How did the idea for the book come about?
I didn’t know it at the time, but the seeds for the book were planted in 2012 with the construction of a new commissary for employees in 30 Rock. When it was finished, it was a beautiful, elegant space looking out over the ice-skating rink. But nothing about it said “NBC.” As an employee, you could have just as well been in a cafeteria at a bank headquarters. Steve Burke asked me to come up with a solution to this problem. I did two things: I selected archival black-and-white photos of NBC stars for the walls, and I commandeered two wooden cabinets intended for waste disposal and turned them into cases to hold historical exhibits.

For the next several years, drawing primarily on NBC archives at the Library of Congress and the Wisconsin Historical Society, I researched and curated four exhibits a year for these two cases, changing them every six months. I explored the history of NBC and World War II, the origins of the Tonight Show, the story of David Sarnoff, Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, the beginning of sports broadcasting – basically, anything that I thought would be interesting to employees and for which I had assets to work with: photos, documents, and physical artifacts.

After doing a few dozen of these exhibits, it struck me that almost every one of them would lend itself to a spread in a coffee-table book. The research was done. The photos and documents largely sourced. I just needed to write the text and add a few chapters to fill some gaps. I thought this would be a book that anyone who took our famous NBC Studios Tour might want to take home as a keepsake, and that in fact would appeal to anyone who was interested in NBC and the history of broadcasting.

One of the many things I most love about the book, going back to that story about the commissary, is how rich the history of NBC is, and how important it is to keep that institutional history alive for people who work there today, to remind them of how special it is to be able to say "I work for NBC." Have you gotten much feedback from employees, comments along the lines of "I didn't know that!"

Yes I have, and it’s been very gratifying. Right before I went to press, I shared page proofs with the CEO (I figured that would be prudent!). He called me the next day and said he thought it was terrific and wanted to know what I thought about printing enough copies so that every New York-based NBCUniversal employee could get one. He thought that the book would do exactly what you just said: make employees feel that they work for a very special company, one that they can be proud to be part of. I thought that was a great idea but told him the money for the extra copies would have to come out of his budget! So last November, more than 5,000 employees arrived at work to find the book on their desks.

Younger readers might think of "30 Rock" as the name of a television show, but I like to think of "30 Rock" as being to television what Yankee Stadium is to baseball. Tell me a little about how 30 Rock came to such prominence.
Financed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Rockefeller Center was built in the early 1930s as the largest privately-financed construction project in history. As originally conceived, it did not include any broadcast studios. The anchor tenant was intended to be the Metropolitan Opera, which was in dire need of a new theater. The Great Depression scotched those plans, however, and Rockefeller needed a new tenant. Coincidentally, RCA – then a booming technology company – needed more space and agreed to come on board and design studio facilities for its broadcasting subsidiary, NBC. The building’s address was 30 Rockefeller Plaza, but it was commonly known as “Radio City.” When it opened in 1933, it included among its many studios the then-largest broadcast studio in the world, Studio 8H, now famous as the home of Saturday Night Live. Over the years, more quality radio and TV programming has originated from this building than any broadcast facility in the world.

The readership here is obviously one that understands the importance of television’s past, not only in terms of history, but for the sheer enjoyment value. We both know, though, that there are younger people out there who, once they see something in black and white, just shut it down completely. What would you say to them about why they should be interested in this, and what they’re missing?
I would encourage any young person who is a fan of late-night comedy such as SNL to check out Sid Caesar and his Show of Shows, and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, both on NBC. Two very different shows; both enormously influential. I would hope that a young audience could notice the writing of the Caesar show, and Sid’s timing. The man was a genius. And as for Laugh-In, well, Lorne Michaels was one of the writers. There’s a direct connection between that show and Saturday Night Live.
What would you consider some of the most significant moments in the network’s history?
A rare photo of Texaco Star Theater being shot
Well, given that NBC was the first national broadcaster, dating back to 1926, there are a lot of big moments. Here are a few that come to mind. On Christmas Day of 1937, Arturo Toscanini made his debut as the maestro of the NBC Symphony. Broadcast live from Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center, this was the first of nearly 500 concerts over the next 17 years, which for the first time made classical music accessible to a middle-class audience of millions. This was a seismic shift from its role as a rarified art form enjoyed primarily in concert halls by the well-to-do. A decade later, I would say the launch of two early TV programs, Howdy Doody on December 17, 1947, and Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater on June 8, 1948, both had the effect of selling lots of TV sets and paving the way for television to be a truly mass medium. Next, the debut of three programs that are still with us today and have had an enormous impact on our lives for generations now: Today (January 14, 1952), The Tonight Show (September 27, 1954), and Saturday Night Live (October 11, 1975). With the exception of Tonight, which was broadcast from Burbank from 1972 until 2014, all five of these shows have originated from 30 Rock for most of their runs. One final moment I’ll mention was more accurately three days rather than a moment: the work of NBC and the other networks covering the national trauma of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. NBC News broadcast nonstop, commercial-free, for 71 hours. There were moments when 9 out of 10 television sets in the nation were tuned in to network television. This was a tragic time during which television served the nation as a unifying force in a way that was unprecedented and certainly never to be repeated.

Did you run across anything in your research that surprised you, one of those moments when you found yourself thinking, "I had no idea!"
Sure, here is my favorite discovery from my research. I tell the short version of this story in the book. Here’s the full story. When I joined the company in 1995, I met a talented on-air promo producer named Skip Stuart. His office was adorned with many odd things, including a small, rather ugly green upright piano. The story he told me about it was that back in the radio days, it belonged to a now-nameless executive and it at one time was adorned with the signatures of celebrities. Then, after a wild party on Skip’s floor in the late seventies or eighties, a cleaning crew was brought in and one of the cleaners scrubbed all the signatures off the piano, after which the piano was put in the freight elevator bank for disposal. Skip, being Skip, salvaged it and put it in his office. When he retired in 2012, I inherited the piano. I knew nothing about it except what Skip had told me, but that was enough for me to want to hang on to it. Then, shortly after that, my department moved floors and I left the piano behind, in a storage closet. I told my contact in the facilities department to let me know if the piano became an issue. Sure enough, I eventually got a call from him, who explained that they really needed the space taken up by the piano and would it be okay if they disposed of it. As much as it pained me, since I didn’t know the full story behind the piano, I couldn’t justify keeping it and gave him the go-ahead to throw it out.
A few years after that, I was doing research on Bertha Brainard, NBC’s leading female executive in the early days of the company. I was reading a profile on Bertha in the August 1942 NBC employee newsletter, and I ran across this sentence: “A tiny upright piano in her office is decorated with the signatures of celebrities—all of whom Miss Brainard has met in her program-building and program-selling tasks in the past two decades.”
My heart skipped a beat and sunk at the same time. One, it hit me that Skip’s piano was surely Bertha’s piano. Two, I remembered giving the go-ahead for it to be thrown away! I rushed from my office on the 25th floor down to the storage closet on 10. And … yes! The piano was still there! Facilities had failed to follow through, and I couldn’t have been more thankful.
Although I had no doubt that this was indeed Bertha’s piano, I felt solid proof would be good. A check of NBC’s photo archive database revealed the existence of a folder labeled “Bertha’s Piano.” I had that folder retrieved from storage and the contents scanned and sent to me. A perfect match! Even better, on the photo, you could make out the many of the signatures on the piano! Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Jerome Kern, Mary Pickford, Babe Ruth, Ed Sullivan, and on and on.
I had a piece of NBC history, and now I knew the story behind it. I had the piano moved to my office, cleaned it off, and contacted a Saturday Night Live producer who I knew to be a history buff. My pitch: Put the piano at the entrance of Studio 8H and invite every guest host and musical guest to sign it, thus reviving the tradition Bertha began in the first years of NBC. Lorne Michaels gave his blessing to my scheme, and for the last two seasons the piano has been slowly filling up with signatures of the celebrities of our age.

Were there other stories or figures that you weren't able to get to in this printing that you're considering adding if there's a second printing?
Oh, for sure. Remember that the conceit of the book is to deal only with NBC’s activities within 30 Rock. Obviously, there are many stories to tell about NBC’s time producing shows from the studios in Burbank. But as far as activities in 30 Rock go, Tom Snyder and his late-night show Tomorrow, which debuted in 1973, certainly deserves a spot in the second edition. (The show flip-flopped between Burbank and New York but aired from 30 Rock for four or five years.) Radio program Monitor, which was yet another one of Pat Weaver’s programming innovations, deserves space as well. It launched in 1955 and at the beginning aired for 40 hours every weekend. I would also like to say more about how innovative the NBC Studios and the building that housed them were. There had never been anything like it. When the NBC tours began, the first stop was the air-conditioning unit on the tenth floor, where the guests would marvel at the 54 dials on the giant control panel as the page informed them that the “mammoth plant circulates 23,000,000 cubic feet of air every hour completely changing the air once every eight minutes” (I’m quoting the 1933 NBC Tour script).
Television has obviously changed a great deal through the decades, from rabbit ears to cable and satellite and now streaming, but it still is, after all, television. What are some of the constants that you see running through NBC’s history from then to now?
One obvious constant is advertising. NBC is still a broadcaster, even if relatively few people receive the broadcast signal through the air, the old-fashioned way. And that means it’s an ad-supported medium, even if we are now offering a ton of content through Peacock (our new streaming service) with an ad-free option. And, even if an enormous amount of viewing is time-shifted, we still do offer a schedule, whereby you know that if you tune in at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, you’re going to see the same show that aired at that same time the previous week and the following week. (Well, this isn’t entirely true but it’s more true than not, still!) The other constant is implied in the word “broad-caster.” Just as was the case in the early days of television, NBC wants to attract a broad audience, not just a niche. That’s what cable is for! Again, this is less true now than ten or twenty years ago, but it is still part of our legacy and ingrained in the thinking of our programmers. Come back to me with this question in another ten years, though!
If there’s one moment from NBC’s history that you could bring back for present-day viewers, what would it be, and why? 

I think I’d go back to the fall of 1948 when the entire country (or those homes with televisions) was captivated by a madcap comedian named Milton Berle and his show, Texaco Star Theater, broadcast on NBC Tuesday evenings at 8 p.m. There were nights when 95% of the nation’s TV sets were tuned to the man dubbed “Mr. Television.” Today, it is hard for us to imagine the nation’s collective attention being drawn to one TV program. An astonishing thought for us indeed. How fun would it be to recreate that! Apparently, Milton’s popularity was such that he disrupted the nation’s waterworks. In Detroit, officials were mystified by the sudden drop in the city’s reservoir levels just after 9 p.m. on Tuesday nights, until they figured out that the entire city waited until after Texaco Star Theater ended to use the bathroom, and they all flushed at once! I think the closest we’ve been to replicating this situation in recent years would be in the mid-1990s with the popularity of NBC’s “Must-See TV” Thursday night lineup.

NBC’s had a great run of success that’s continued to this very day; are there one or two series from the last few years, or something that’s even on right now, that you think would be at home with the very best that the network’s had to offer?
Sure, I think The Office was brilliant and certainly holds up against the best that NBC has ever put on the air. And I know I have mentioned Saturday Night Live. Granted, not every sketch works. But think about this: The show premiered in 1975 and today, 45 years later, it is still relevant, with moments of brilliance. That’s extraordinary.

You’ve got a time machine that can take you back to any program that’s ever aired on NBC. You’re there on the set. You can talk to anyone on the cast, or any member of the crew. Where do you go, what do you do, and why?  

Fred Coe in the control room
Great question. So many possible answers. But I think I’d pick Studio 8G on May 24, 1953. “Marty” is about to air, live, an episode of Goodyear Television Playhouse and perhaps the high-water mark of the (first) Golden Age of television. Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand are in their dressing rooms. But I’m more interested in talking to the producer Fred Coe, hearing him explain how he figured out how to exploit the possibilities of the TV camera in ways that had never been envisioned. Delbert Mann, the director, is on set as well, reviewing last-minute script changes with Paddy Chayefsky. The atmosphere must have been electric. Here’s a quote from Rod Steiger that I used in my book, in the chapter on the Golden Age: “You had one shot. The pressure was hideous. You had to be a masochist to do it.” I would get such a kick out of being there to see it unfold.

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Wasn't that fun? I'd like to thank William for his time, and especially his most gracious patience in putting up with an interviewer who was shoehorning him in-between starting a new job and moving to a new home. Many programming directors would have put me on hiatus long ago. I'd also like to thank our mutual friend, the mighty Jodie Peeler, for helping to arrange this interview; you're undefeated once again! Since we completed our interview, William has told me that his last day at NBC will be October 16, ending a 25-year career there. (I can't imagine what it must be like to spend 25 years at one place; I've had trouble lately making it to 25 months.) 

If you want to purchase a copy of NBC and 30 Rock: A View from Inside—and let me say here that I cannot recommend this book strongly enough (full disclosure: I was provided with a copy of the book for my review)—you can purchase it at the NBC Store website. It is one of the rare coffee table books where the text more than lives up to the pictures. Remember, the holidays aren't that far away; a copy of  NBC and 30 Rock coupled with, say, The Electronic Mirror, would be a great gift for that classic TV fan you know, even if it happens to be you.  TV  

1 comment:

  1. What an entertaining interview! The scope of Mr. Bartlett's knowledge is impressive, and although I am not familiar with some of the early programming he references, I nonetheless felt a wave of nostalgia at the thought of "our nation's collective attention being drawn to one TV program" as it was for Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater. Here's hoping that TV could once again pull that off. What fun it would be indeed!


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