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Upfronts: NBC Universal offers up an 'Experience' like no other

May 12, 2008 |  6:34 pm

NEW YORK--The most-heard remark among the ad buyers, television producers and network executives about this evening’s NBC Universal Experience: “Well, it’s … an experience.”Photo_05_2

It was hard to know what to make of the 440 booming television screens, pulsating electronic tickers and 7-foot-high consoles featuring life-size videos of your favorite NBC Universal talent that filled the telescoping set of halls. Part carnival, part trade show, the Experience was NBCU’s official offering for upfront week, but it didn’t resemble the traditional programming presentation one bit.

There were no executives droning on about cross-platform opportunities. There were no clips of new fall shows.

Instead, everywhere, there was media: flashing, blinking, humming media.

“I hope you all enjoyed your walk through the multimedia video and light arcade,” Conan O’Brien told the crowd during the cocktail party that capped off the evening. “Or as we like to call it here at NBC, the epilepsy hut.”

What, you didn’t get an invite? Dear reader, we won’t let you miss out. Sit back and let us take you on a journey -- shall we say, an Experience?

After navigating the rainy streets of midtown Manhattan, your trip begins on the mezzanine level of 30 Rock, where a cheerful guide takes you into what is usually the second floor of the NBC store. Lights flash, audio thunders. Is that a life-sized video of Keith Olbermann? It’s hard to make out what he’s saying.

You walk down a hall packed with flat-screen televisions with eerily sharp pictures, all tuned to different NBC programming. Brian Williams’ voice booms out of one of them. You’re propelled into the next room, where Tim Sale paintings from “Heroes” line the wall.

Down the stairs, the “Deal or No Deal” suitcase models in their red sequined dresses are thrusting a plastic container with a thumb drive at you. (Something about playing the game online?) Next thing you know, two mummies approach. You dart away before a NBC employee can take a photo of you with them, and you’re face to face with a dozen cellphones suspended from the ceiling, all playing TV on their tiny screens.

Telemundo anchors are doing a live newscast in the midst of the hubbub, and “Today’s” Meredith Vieira and Ann Curry are interviewing ad buyers about why they love the morning program.

You go outside and push your way into a tent erected over the plaza. This is the main show: a padded ring in which two muscled players from “American Gladiator” are jousting with pugil sticks. “This reminds me of the Iowa caucus,” muses Tim Russert as he walks by.

In the next room: Chefs whip up frothy appetizers, NBC Sports anchors sign footballs and toss them into the crowd, and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews broadcasts live above the commotion.

The crowning touch, once you reach the end of the Experience: KITT, the talking car. Alas, he didn’t say anything to your correspondent.

So exactly what was that all about, aside from a chance to show off NBCU’s technological prowess? Are ad buyers actually going to decide to purchase airtime based on what they Experienced?

Of course not, said NBCU Chief Executive Jeff Zucker. “No business will get written here,” he told us during the crowded, damp cocktail party that followed the Experience.

Oh. Silly us.

The Experience was aimed at something else: showing off the vast and varied properties of NBC Universal -– which, he noted, extend far beyond NBC.

“What we’re trying to do is reinforce the idea that it’s more than the English-language broadcast network,” Zucker said.

“We know it’s very overwhelming,” he added happily. “It’s a lot –- because there’s a lot here.”

Still, when Conan O'Brien took the stage, he noted that this year was a marked difference from past upfront events in prestigious venues such as Avery Fisher Hall and Radio City Music Hall.

“Now, we’re all standing in a soggy tent outside the NBC store,” he said. “Next year’s upfront: at the falafel stand on 49th Street.”

-- Matea Gold