The Variety Exit Interview: NBC's John Miller on 'Must See TV,' 'It's New To You' and other career highlights (and low points)
Brandon Tartikoff, Bob Wright and John Miller.
After nearly 30 years at NBC, marketing topper John Miller is set to announce his retirement this week at the PromaxBDA convention.
From "Just Watch Us Now" and "Let's All Be There," to "Must-See TV" and now, "More Colorful," Miller has watched the network marketing business undergo quite a dramatic change. And Miller, of course, and his team have instigated much of that change.
While "Must-See TV' has gone down in the books as one of the most well-known TV slogans of all time, initiatives like "NBC 2000" -- which slimmed down closing credits and created a seamless transition between shows -- became standard industry practice.
As he prepared to make his departure official, Miller took time out to reminisce about the highlights of his three decades at the Peacock -- and why he felt the time was right to step aside:
VARIETY ON THE AIR: Why the retirement? Why now?
JOHN MILLER: I do turn 60 in October, and at a certain point it is a young man’s game. Technologically, things change very quickly these days. And we’ve embraced social media and mobile platforms and different ways to reach the consumer. But I do it as a student of marketing and not as a consumer. Broadcasting is a very different beast than it was when I first joined it. Now, the good news is, the cavalry is coming to help broadcast, in terms of retransmission deals and network ownership of properties via in-house studio, so that they can survive.
But a couple of years ago, when I first made this decision, it was a time when I said, ‘I’ve been doing this a long time,’ and quite candidly, it wasn’t the best of times at NBC. Even though I had corporate responsibilities for the NBC Universal marketing council, maybe at a certain point it was time to turn things over to the next generation. 'You may want to try to use me for next couple of years to put things in place, and use my brain and memory and everything else,' I told them. I’ve accumulated a bunch of knowledge over time, and it’s unfair for one person to come in cold.
AFTER THE JUMP: Miller discusses the high points -- and a few low ones -- during his nearly three decades at the Peacock.
MILLER: In 2004, when NBC and Universal merged, we had a centralized operation. The NBC Agency was doing work for every business – for USA, Sci-Fi and Bravo. But over the course of time, the individual focus of the brands started migrating under their own watch. Because the NBC Agency was housed in the NBC Entertainment division, we had some significant costs – and it no longer made sense for our division of the company, which was facing tough economic times, to be footing the bill for the part of the company doing quite well. So we started dividing it up.
But mostly I decided I’ve been doing this a long time. So much has dramatically changed. When I first took over, there were three networks – Fox was not yet on the market. The affiliates wielded a lot more power. And we were dealing primarily with three mediums: On-air promo was the most important thing you did; there was print – significantly TV Guide; and everybody did radio.
With today's landscape – DVRs, hundreds of channels, different ways in which people use their leisure time, from gaming to social media to YouTube or user-generated video to the networks – it’s a very much different game than it was in 1984 or 1985 when I took over. It wasn’t so much that I wasn’t up to the challenge, it’s just that I’ve done that challenge for a longtime. Quarter of a century running the marketing department for a major television network is probably enough for any one person.
I believe I’m the longest person to ever do that job, which is either a testimony of stick-to-it-ness or the fact that I just couldn’t advance beyond it.
VARIETY: Let's talk about some highlights of your career at NBC.
MILLER: The campaign and marketing can only be as good as your shows. We’ve done a very good job getting people to sample the shows. And one of the things that I’m proud of it’s the fact that, as Don Ohlmeyer used to say, we could open a funeral.
That was true whether it was miniseries like “The Beast” or great shows like “The West Wing.” Putting those two programs together in the same sentence almost seems a travesty, but as a TV marketer that’s what you have to do. Every show is your favorite show until it launches. No one accepts success faster than a marketer, but then no one rejects failure faster than a marketer.
VARIETY: "Must See TV" must top your list of what made the most impact.
MILLER: "Must See TV" is still, I believe, the most remembered network campaign. We had fallen out of first place. So we took all of our best shows and put them on one night. And (then-NBC West Coast topper) Don Ohlmeyer came in and said, "We're putting our best stuff on Thursday night. I want you develop a campaign around it, this is a night of appointment TV."
One guy on our team said "Must See TV." We said good, it rhymes, and we went with it. We came up with an annoying jingle that we must have played on every spot we ever did on Thursday for about a year and a half. Eventually we started seeing cartoons written about "Must See TV" and stories about "Must See TV" influencing peoples lives, as they stayed home on Thursday nights. At that point we knew we had crossed over from being just a promotional campaign into pop culture jargon.
We stayed with it for a long period of time until we really weren't so much "Must See" anymore, and we felt we needed to make a change.
VARIETY: What about some of the other campaigns?
MILLER: There was a campaign that we did early on for "L.A. Law" that was kind of fun; some work weve done for the Olympics that I'm extremely proud of. "3rd Rock from the Sun" was a time when we had all sorts of different and creative spots. I remember those times as being pretty good.
In more recent times, a show that was a pretty good pilot but turned out to be a not-so-good series was "Bionic Woman." I thought we did an exceptional job on for a show that was just OK. It was the No. 1 new show in 18-49 that season.
VARIETY: In many ways, "NBC 2000" was probably even more influential than "Must See TV."
MILLER: "NBC 2000" was something I was enormously proud of. We actually reproduced the network primetime. We reconfigured the credits, probably something most people in the industry vilify me for; but we spent a full year creating the unit and almost a full summer going around to the Guilds, convincing them that this was good for the viewers. We took what used to be the station breaks that ran at the end of the shows and put them in the middle of the shows. And came up with something called "promotainment" to keep the viewers watching from show to show while the credits were going on. "NBC 2000" was just geared to viewers involved and promote in a different way. While continuing to promote straight ahead we could hit you from the side. We had a year's head start; by the next year, everyone was doing it.
VARIETY: And talk about dusting off the Peacock.
MILLER: The one thing about the Peacock, and this was one of the greatest advantages I think we had, it could come to life. We had a rule it had to always end up as the official logo, but we had no problem with it being an animated creature or strutting itself as a disco dancer. It would always end up the same. Early on we had "designer Peacocks." Some of the major designers or animators of the time did their version of the Peacock. I told them the only stipulation was it had to end as the Peacock logo; how you got there was your business.
VARIETY: It seems like network marketing didn't change much leading up to the mid-1990s -- and then everything changed. What ever happened to the old network theme songs and slogans?
MILLER: If anything the 1980s were when the fall themes hit their zenith. We had started out in 1982 as "Just Watch Us Now," and then we did "Be There," and then "Let's All Be There," and then we did "Let's All Be There Again," since they began showing up. Then we did "Come Home to NBC," and "Come Home to the Best, Only on NBC." And "NBC The Place to Be."
And about that time, in the 1990-91 time frame, we said, you know, we're not running these things often; we're running more summer shows. Why don't we save that money and invest it more in fall launches? I think everyone came to that opinion around the same time.
And they faded out. Occasionally you'll have a network line out there; CBS uses "Only CBS" alot. But if you were to ask anyone what CBS used, I think they'd be hard-pressed to know what it is. The same with us and ABC. It's just one of those things that doesn't mean much. "More colorful" to us was an outward facing approach to recapture what the essence of what NBC had been in the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s on a programming basis.
And to a degree for a couple of years I think we lost our color -- and by saying that we're more colorful, it puts us in a position where we're going back to the legacy of what we had before.
VARIETY: What about the moments and campaigns you'd do differently if given a second chance?
For some reason we had a really sweet show, harmless to most people, called "Providence." And it was vilified in the press."Providence" was vilified in the press.
Yet it was one of those shows that I just knew we could open. After the show had premiered, I remember I used part of a Tom Shales quote that said "NBC has done it again." Clearly it was a quote he had used to smash Providence. I used the quote out of context. I was just pissed off that they knocked that show. And we had plenty of shows that have been criticized, but I didn't think this should be one of them.
One that I thought was pretty clever but never worked was 'It's New to You." We had researched at that point that even fans of a show had watched maybe half of the episodes -- the is well before DVRs. So we came up with the slogan "if you haven't seen it, it's new to you" to run over the summer.
Well, most people said, it wasn't so new and they didn't watch it for a reason the first time. So while I thought it was clever, and a lot of people emulated it over the course of time, that was one of those things that ever made the leap over to believability.
VARIETY: Any other campaigns that didn't work out?
MILLER: Jay was just coming in after having been chosen between him and Dave. And initially, Dave debuted really strong. So we came up with "Stand up for Jay." The idea was, Jay is a stand-up comedian, people generally stand up when he comes on stage. So we went around the country doing these celebrations for Jay, and it just really backfired. We did it as a mock-style campaign, and it just did not work. We were starting to get knocked, and Jay didn't like it. We quickly yanked it and decided to just show the funny, and that worked fine. Eventually Hugh Grant came along.
Then there were a few movies where you thought, 'How are we ever going to get anyone to watch this?' And then you'd get huge numbers for them. "The Beast" was one of them. The Beast was actually a giant squid, but looked like a big piece of plastic. So we decided not to show it. We made the determination that not seeing the squid, but imagining it, was far better than seeing it.
VARIETY: What's next for you?
MILLER: In the short term I'm leading a couple of teams, integrated marketing being one of them.
In 2004 we formed the NBC U marketing council, which I've been the chair of. We eventually created a culture where everybody gives and everybody gets, and everybody helps out . We all fly below the ego level. It's my strong desire when and if this Comcast deal gets done that we figure out a way to keep the council going, make it even bigger and utilize some of the additional assets that are going to be available through Comcast.
As part of my portfolio responsibilities, in addition to marketing NBC I've done a variety of other programming jobs. I did syndicated development under Brandon Tartikoff in the late 1980s; then I did daytime and childrens, and then primetime specials. I gave all that up when we launched the NBC Agency.
So, having run children's TV for a period of time, one of the things we were looking at -- because Comcast has Sprout -- is whether we should be back in the kids marketplace. NBC U does a lot in home entertainment, both international and domestic, and we have the Saturday morning ("Qubo") block.
We'll figure out if there might be a business to be there. Meanwhile, they're giving me a couple of things to look over from an integration standpoint, I still run the marketing council and will do that until the end of the year and whenever the deal closes.
Because the company is getting larger and there will be different things happening, the last several months various people have been talking to me about staying around.
I can't say that we've found anything perfect yet, and I'm not going to go do what I did before. But if there's something else here of interest to me fine; if not, I'll move on.
I became adjunct professor for Carnegie Mellon, that was fun, and have sat on some boards and find that gratifying. And I have not been one to take vacations; my wife would like me to take a vacation.
VARIETY: Outside of TV, tell me about one of your biggest hobbies -- barbershop quartets.
MILLER: I'm a two-time international Barbershop quartet champion. It's been a big part of my life and two of my sons do it now. It always interested me, both of my parents were professional singers, and singing and harmonizing just came natural to me. I liked it and was pretty good at it, so have done it for a long period of time.
VARIETY: What advice do you have for folks now coming up in the industry?
MILLER: You have to get noticed, and you have to have good product. And this year at NBC I think we actually have some shows coming that I actually think can be terrific and capture the essence of what we had before.
But assuming you have good product you have to make noise. And you have to find different things that are going to attract attention. In addition to that you need to understand what the show is, what the unique selling proposition of the is, what's different about it, why would people want to invest their time in it. And then relentlessly pursue it in a very creative way.
But marketing is a mix of art and science, and you have to do both well. The art has to be creative -- funny or sad or heart-felt or dramatic, something that makes an impact not just white noise.
In today's marketplace, it has to involve a significant amount of science -- which can involve social media programs to mobile to marketing with advertising partners. Balancing the art plus the science is what can get shows launched.
There's going to be another new show in a couple of months, so don't get too tied to any one, and keep moving forward.
VARIETY: What are you going to miss most?
MILLER: It's the competitive part that I really love. I like waking up early in the morning and reading the ratings. I'll miss the creativity of sitting with some very talented people we've had here over the years.