Will Smith Zoom Calls and a ‘Four-Quad Weekend’: Inside Peacock’s Bel-Air Push

Photo: Peacock

If you were one of the 215 million Americans NBCUniversal says caught some portion of its coverage of the Super Bowl and Olympics over the past two weeks, there’s a good chance you saw a promo (or twelve) for Peacock’s Bel-Air. While the two-year-old streamer has made sizable pushes for other projects, they’ve paled next to the effort unleashed on behalf of its (literally) dramatic reinvention of iconic 1990s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It’s a campaign so ambitious, it actually started before Peacock won the right to make the show.

According to Alexandra Shapiro, head of marketing at the streamer, the early planning was necessary because so many other platforms were interested in signing onto the project, which began taking shape in the months after director Morgan Cooper’s short about a dramatized version of Fresh Prince went viral in 2019. While Peacock sibling studio Universal Television owns the underlying Fresh Prince IP, getting Cooper and original series star Will Smith on board meant making sure whichever network or streamer snagged the show paid fair market value for it. And since, per trade reports at the time (and Cooper’s own telling of the situation), Netflix, HBO Max and others were extremely hot for Cooper’s remake, Peacock couldn’t assume its corporate connections would be enough to land the project. “By no means did I think this show was ours,” says Shapiro. “There is an arms race for content. We are a nascent streamer. We were auditioning, for sure.”

Part of that sales effort included highlighting how the company’s scale would be leveraged to Bel-Air’s advantage. “We went into the pitch showcasing our passion for the project and NBCUniversal’s unique ability to launch it in a really big way, which included promotional platforms like the Winter Olympics and Super Bowl,” says Matt Strauss, the Comcast exec who oversees Peacock. But as Shapiro explains, it also meant demonstrating to Smith, Cooper and the rest of the Bel-Air team that Peacock was in sync with their creative vision. “They said, ‘OK, we understand Peacock and NBC Universal, but do you understand the source material? Show us how you would bring this to life’,” she recalls.

After the initial round of pitches from potential buyers, a follow-up meeting was scheduled for the summer of 2020 to do just that. Shapiro and her team presented a 40-page deck detailing how they would leverage the familiarity Millennial and Gen X viewers have with the Fresh Prince to sell them on Cooper’s 21st century remix. “We laid out for them a plan that said, ‘What if we took these timeless passion points of the IP but give them a modern twist, and create a campaign that’s a love letter to Black culture, Black family, and most of all, Black joy?’” Shapiro says. “We made our creators understand that we were going to honor [Cooper’s] vision tonally, sonically, aesthetically, but above all, culturally. It was supposed to be a half-hour meeting. It went for an hour-and-a-half.”

Peacock also demonstrated its enthusiasm for Bel-Air in a more tangible way, offering an upfront guarantee to produce two seasons of the show before a single frame had been shot. Such a big advance order is not unprecedented in TV land, but it is rare, and generally reserved only for the most in-demand projects. Netflix famously used its two-season order for House of Cards to announce its commitment to original programming, while five years ago, Amazon upped the ante with a “multi-season” commitment to a series version of Lord of the Rings. “This was a big swing for us, but we believed in it from the beginning,” Strauss explains.

The combination of the successful marketing pitch and the two-season production commitment did the trick, and by September 2020, Peacock had closed the deal for Bel-Air. Normally such big news gets announced via press release or a well-timed leaked to one of the Hollywood trades. But Universal and Peacock opted to turn the news of the greenlight into the very first bit of marketing for Bel-Air, enlisting Smith to reveal the series order though an elaborately-produced seven-minute video posted to his YouTube page. Beyond making the announcement feel like an event, Shapiro says it was also a way to pre-empt any pushback from fans of the original series worried about the new take. “It was really important, as we reimagined this for a new generation, to have Will’s endorsement,” she says. “If we’re going to appeal to the OG fans, they need to know the OG himself, Will Smith, is passionate about it and endorsing it.” The stunt proved so successful, it was used again last August, when Smith used his YouTube page to announce the casting of Jabari Banks as the new Will.

Getting Bel-Air Out There

While nearly a year elapsed between the order for Bel-Air and the start of filming, Shapiro says work on the promo effort began “almost immediately” after the greenlight, with near-weekly meetings between her department and the show’s production team (including Cooper, Universal Television and Smith’s Westbrook Studios). “You cannot pull off a marketing campaign of this magnitude without the collaboration we had from all sides,” she says. And while the ongoing coronavirus pandemic meant all of the planning took place virtually via Zoom and Microsoft Teams sessions, Shapiro says that really wasn’t a problem. “We never physically shared the same space, but it was fantastic,” she says. “There’s a democracy and an equalizing [in video chats]. You know when something goes over that you’re clicking.”

A recurring theme of these conversations, per Shapiro, was figuring out how to live up to the promise Peacock made to Smith and Cooper while pitching for the Bel-Air rights, specifically that the marketing for the show would be “culturally relevant” and thus reflect their vision for a series that had something to say about the Black experience in 2022. “We want to entertain first and foremost, and we want this to be escapist,” Shapiro explains. “But we haven’t done our job if we are not pushing the narrative forward and forcing people to have tough conversations about race, class, identity, social injustice in America today. That has been important to us, but really important to Morgan, to Will, and to Westbrook. We don’t want to lose the humor and the levity. And there’s a lot of levity and joy in this show. But we also want to make sure that we’re playing our part in moving the conversation forward.”

The ‘Four-Quad Weekend’

As these weekly dialogues focused on the nuts and bolts of the campaign — trailers, billboards, social media, in-person events — Shapiro and her bosses at Peacock and NBCUniversal were already thinking about what would be one of the most important decisions they’d make regarding the Bel-Air launch: Exactly when it would premiere. With sister network NBC set to carry both the Winter Olympics and the Super Bowl in February 2022, Peacock execs ealized there was an enormous opportunity to use corporate synergy to get Bel-Air promos in front of the tens of millions of viewers who’d be watching the events on NBC, including some who would be signing up for Peacock in order to stream them. While the scheduling wouldn’t be announced until December, “From the moment production started, we had our eyes set on this weekend,” Shapiro says.

Peacock hoped to put a modern spin on a decades-old linear TV tradition: Using the Olympics and post-Super Bowl timeslots to hype entertainment series. In 2016, for example, NBC aired a special episode of Superstore adjacent to the Summer Games in order to help kick off the second series of the sitcom. And in terms of the Super Bowl, newcomers from the original The Wonder Years to last year’s reboot of The Equalizer had their bows after the big game. “From a marketer’s perspective, there is no better moment to drop a new series,” Shapiro says. Internally, Peacock execs began calling their plan the “four-quad weekend” because, in addition to the Super Bowl, Olympics and Bel-Air premiere, the platform would also stream the new J. Lo/Owen Wilson rom-com Marry Me on Feb. 18, the same day it opened in theaters. It’s “a confluence of big-content events that is just unprecedented,” Shapiro says.

Despite all the advantages associated with launching around the Olympics and Super Bowl — including the many, many on-air promos which ran on NBC during both sporting events — focusing Peacock’s Bel-Air blitz on a single weekend would’ve been too risky. While many shows have gotten a boost from promotion during those events (including, most recently, the aforementioned Equalizer), an even larger number have crashed and burned despite the primo exposure. Knowing that, Shapiro and her staff put together an aggressive plan of events and marketing partnerships which built upon the ideas first sketched out during their initial 2020 pitch meeting with Smith, Cooper and Universal Television. “It is the biggest campaign we’ve ever done,” she says. Among the highlights:

➽ As part of the effort to amplify the cultural issues raised in Bel-Air, Peacock tapped writer-actor Aida Osman (Keep It, Rap Sh*t) and Smith’s former partner DJ Jazzy Jeff to host a weekly podcast devoted not to recapping the show’s plot lines but exploring the themes raised in each episode.

➽ Several major ad partners, including State Farm and Unilever, created ads for their products tied to Bel-Air, including some featuring the show’s cast members. While that’s fairly standard for big feature film releases, it’s less common for new TV shows, and it allows Peacock to raise awareness of the show outside its own promos and ads.

➽ Peacock has collaborated with a slew of media outlets skewed to younger audiences (including Refinery 29, Teen Vogue and Complex) to create branded content for the show or sponsor editorial features. In the case of Refinery 29, for example, a recent episode of the site’s “Go Off, Sis” franchise sponsored by Peacock focused on “Black excellence” and used Bel-Air as the starting point for a conversation about issues raised in the show. And this week, Bel-Air was one of the sponsors of iHeart Radio’s “Living Black” concert event, a promotion which included hundreds of iHeart radio DJs mentioning the Peacock show on-air.

➽ The streamer sought sponsorship opportunities tied to music, sports and fashion, including Complex’s “Sneaker Shopping” video series and a heavy presence at last weekend’s NBA All-Star Game events in Cleveland through a video and merch collaboration with Bleacher Report.

➽ Given Bel-Air’s ties to Philadelphia and Southern California, Peacock created multiple promotional stunts in both cities in order to reach potential viewers in those markets. Earlier this month, it recreated the show’s mansion set as the center of a pop-up experience, allowing visitors (mostly social media influencers and members of the press) to interact with elements from the show. There’s also a Bel-Air-inspired mural currently displayed at Philadelphia International Airport, while cast members from the show are slated to attend a 76ers game next month.

Did It Work?

Since there are no Nielsen ratings for Peacock, there’s no verifiable way of knowing whether these efforts have paid off with viewership for Bel-Air or if they’ve recruited new subscribers to sign up for the service. The streamer has also yet to release any internal data talking up its performance. But however audiences are responding, Shapiro says Peacock’s effort to promote the show won’t be slowing down now that the series is finally streaming. “Right now we’re in the third phase of our marketing plan,” she says. “The first part was just building buzz and anticipation. The second, which we really started in earnest after Christmas, was how do we drive comprehension about what this new drama is, and this new world? And right now where we are is, how do we literally make Bel-Air unmissable, unignorable [and] ubiquitous in a purpose-built way, and pull every paid and earned lever we have at our disposal to bring this to life?”

What’s more, because a second season of Bel-Air was guaranteed even before the first episode aired — and because there are no fixed timeslots in streaming — Peacock plans to continue heavily hyping the series long after the season one finale drops in a few weeks. “I suspect this will never stop,” Shapiro says of the promotional effort. “It may change. There’ll be peaks and troughs to the marketing cadence. But our job is to launch big [and] then bring in new folks over the time between the debut of our first season and our second.”

Peacock’s Other Wager: Love Island

We have more proof that NBCUniversal is not slowing down in its effort to bulk up the original content offering for Peacock. The streamer Wednesday said it had struck a two-year deal to become the new home for the American version of U.K. smash Love Island, which has aired on CBS since 2019. The first of the two new seasons will begin production this summer somewhere in California, and if it mirrors the recent production pattern of other countries, will likely run for around two months, with at least four new episodes dropping every week. One industry source I spoke with said Peacock was making a “huge commitment,” dollar-wise, to land the franchise, which makes sense given each season of the show can run for 40 to 50 episodes.

Despite doing just about everything right — extensive promotion, not trying to mess with the format — CBS was just never able to turn the show into the hit it is in other parts of the world, even if it did lower the Eye’s media age a bit. But for CBS, those younger demos weren’t enough to justify the expense of continuing the show, particularly since the series eats up so much primetime real estate (and the network already has a reliable summer tentpole with Big Brother).

There are no such worries about primetime shelf space in the streaming world: Peacock wants shows which air on a regular cadence because they keep audiences coming back every day. The biggest problem for streamers, particularly newer ones, is getting subscribers to return to the service on a regular basis. Great library titles help with that, but a buzzy show like Love Island figures to both bring in new subscribers while also keeping them engaged. Peacock parent NBCUniversal also has a very strong bench of unscripted hits in which it can promote Love Island, including all those Housewives and Below Decks from Bravo. It won’t be cheap, but should be a very good fit for the streamer.

Peacock noted it snagged Love Island “following a highly competitive situation” — code for “we outbid several other places” — and it wouldn’t surprise me if one of those platforms was Hulu. The Disney-owned streamer is home to reruns of the U.K. version of the show, and with its upcoming Kardashian series, it is clearly out to up its unscripted game. CBS sibling Paramount+ also might have been a logical destination for Love Island, both because next-day reruns of the show had already run on the streamer and because parent company Paramount Global’s MTV Entertainment has an unscripted empire which makes NBCU’s offerings look slim by comparison. ITV almost surely would have come to CBS and Paramount first before bringing the show on to the open market, so it seems clear that whatever P+’s interest in the show, it wasn’t nearly enough to keep it in the corporate family.

The Inside Story of Peacock’s Bel-Air Push