First Law & Order ends, and now NBC is losing another institution: John Miller, the network’s head of marketing since 1984 and the man responsible for every Peacock promo from The Cosby Show to Parks and Recreation, is stepping down. He’s the man who once instructed Mr. T to bark “Be there,” came up with the (brilliant) idea to promote the pilot for Miami Vice by using only visuals and Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight,” and (with former partner Vince Manze) massaged the phrase “Must-See TV” into your brain until you used it to refer even to shows that weren’t, like The Single Guy. And he is perhaps the only human on the face of the earth who can say he helped promote both versions of Knight Rider. In honor of Miller’s moving on — though he’ll stay on as an adviser, at least through next year’s merger with Comcast — we asked him to remember some of his favorite work, along with his favorite mistakes. Some of you may remember these, but if you don’t, they’re new to you! (See entry No. 5.)
The Making of a Must-See No. 1:ER. Before it launched in the fall of 1994 and quickly became a pop-culture phenom (bigger than Glee! Really!), ER was just thought of as that other medical drama airing on Thursday nights at 10 p.m.: That year, CBS was also introducing Chicago Hope, which bragged a top-of-his-game creator (David E. Kelley) and more recognizable stars (Mandy Patinkin, Hector Elizondo). Miller decided to frame his new show as part of NBC’s Thursday quality-TV legacy (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law) and play up the emotion of the ER pilot. “I had the knowledge that it was the highest testing show we had ever made,” Miller says. “The show was so good we could just highlight scenes from the pilot. The one line that ended up in almost every spot was George Clooney yelling at a bad mom, ‘He’s a little kid!’ People would repeat that line to me at NBC meetings for weeks.”
The Making of a Must-See No. 2: Friends. Once the cast of Friends became superstars, NBC’s publicity department had trouble getting the gang of six to come together for something as simple as a new photo shoot. But early on, Miller managed to convince them to strip to their skivvies for a Calvin Klein–esque promo we completely forgot about. Even more impressive: He got them to do a sequel a year later.
Come Home to NBC. During his early years at NBC (he started as a junior promotions executive in 1982), Miller contributed to a slew of classic fall image campaigns, including “Be There” (and its ever-popular sequel, “Let’s All Be There”). The first one Miller shaped himself, however, was “Come Home to NBC.” The original 1986 version mixes shots of viewers at home, iconic American landmarks (including the World Trade Center), and smiling NBC celebs. The campaign’s best year came in 1987, when Miller had all of the network’s current stars high jinks—ing with each other, which led to the jarring images of John Larroquette using a telescope to spy on a frisky Estelle Getty, and Bob Hope laughing it up with Alf. “It was all about the joy of watching NBC after coming home from a long day at work,” Miller says.
Leno Damage Control: Nineties Edition Before Jay Leno’s current run of bad press, NBC first administered image rehab in the early nineties, when the new Tonight Show host was soundly losing to David Letterman in the ratings. Miller’s department tried to draw a line between evil TV critics and Everyday Viewers by insisting that America was “Standing Up for Jay.” Unfortunately, “It played like a hokey political campaign ad,” Miller now concedes. “Jay eventually came to us and said [Miller slips into a Leno impersonation], ‘Hey, guys, I dunno about this.’” The ads, in many cases tailored to local markets, were eventually pulled.
Repeats Rock! Hoping to make summer reruns sexier, Miller and his team mounted a 1997 campaign advising viewers, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.” The thinking: Research showed viewers in the pre-DVR era maybe watched twelve episodes of even their favorite shows, so repeats were actually a helpful way to catch up, rather than a summertime scourge; it came off like a pitch from a used-car salesman. “It was well-intentioned, but it didn’t work,” Miller says. “Reporters mocked us for it, but I’m still proud of it!”
Friday Night Lights’s Failure to Launch. Passionate Panther fans who blame NBC for not showing enough support to FNL should know that Miller has lost sleep over it, too. “It’s been my most frustrating show,” he admits. “When we first screened the pilot, the programming department was so proud because it was so good. But I had to tell them, ‘Guys, this show is going to be almost impossible to sell.’ It’s about sports; it’s about high school; it’s about rural Texas. We tried everything, but we haven’t been able to broaden the audience.”