NBCUniversal’s ‘secret sauce:’ How its Symphony campaigns boost ‘This Is Us’ and other projects

Chris Sullivan plays Toby Damon and Chrissy Metz plays Kate Pearson in NBC's "This Is Us."
Chris Sullivan plays Toby Damon and Chrissy Metz plays Kate Pearson in NBC’s “This Is Us.”
(Ron Batzdorff / NBC)

NBC’s new series “This Is Us” finished its first season as the envy of the broadcast network television business.

While new shows are struggling to break through the myriad of TV choices, the tear-jerking ensemble drama scored 17.8 million viewers for its March 14 finale and became the top broadcast network drama among the 18 to 49 age group valued by advertisers.

“This Is Us” was beloved by critics — but it took a media village to make it a breakout hit. The show’s launch was backed by a marketing push known as Symphony, in which various divisions of NBCUniversal work together to promote a single project. Executives describe the initiative as the “secret sauce” for launching TV shows, special events, theme park attractions and movies.

The strategy reflects the growing reality confronting major media companies: In an increasingly crowded market, they must use every asset at their disposal to get consumers to watch new offerings.


“In a world of infinite choice, it makes a lot of sense to have a corporate mandate to get attention for your product,” said TV producer Warren Littlefield, who during his time as president of NBC Entertainment in the 1990s had to work the phones himself to corral other departments to help support a night of themed programming or a big miniseries.

Media conglomerates using disparate businesses to promote a single show or brand is hardly new — and it often fails. Highly territorial division heads are typically focused on the financial performance of their own businesses. Large executive egos can also impede cooperative efforts between departments.

But executives at NBCUniversal and management experts say the synergy efforts have worked.

NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke has made the sharing of resources part of the company’s corporate culture. Burke became an advocate of cross-division collaboration during his 10 years at the Walt Disney Co., which pioneered the practice of leveraging multiple business units to promote a single movie such as “The Lion King.”

“What makes Symphony effective … is that it comes from the very top,” said Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School who specializes in the entertainment industry and has done a case study on Symphony. “Steve Burke is making it very clear that this is an enormous priority for him and for the company.”

Symphony is the rare successful model of cross-promotional cooperation, said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management. He remembers once asking an executive of a media company about synergy ideas and being shown a drawer of empty folders.

At other companies you would succeed at the expense of the others. There was a zero-sum view of things, and that’s just not the way they think at Comcast.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management

“At other companies you would succeed at the expense of the others,” he said. “There was a zero-sum view of things, and that’s just not the way they think at [NBCUniversal parent] Comcast.”

Under Symphony, the biggest support goes to projects that top management deems a priority. The highest level of support can provide 2,500 to 3,000 promotional spots shown over NBCUniversal’s channels and Comcast’s cable systems over a three-week period. Characters from an upcoming show or movie are embedded in programs or appear on digital platforms such as BuzzFeed and Vox, in which NBCUniversal has a stake.

Executives declined to reveal how much Symphony costs, but the program is well-funded. The company put $4 million a week in network TV and cable ads for projects deemed Symphony-worthy in 2014, Elberse said.

Quarterly meetings for executives are held inside Studio 8H at NBCUniversal headquarters in New York’s Rockefeller Center to highlight the Symphony-backed projects.

On a screen above the stage at the start of each gathering is a projected image of conductor Arturo Toscanini, who led the NBC Symphony Orchestra in the studio back in the 1940s — a reminder to get employees on the same page.

The Symphony meetings are a corporate presentation, pep rally and talk show rolled up into one. Last summer, NBC Entertainment President Bob Greenblatt was up on the 8H stage chatting up “This Is Us” creator Dan Fogelman and several of its stars. They showed the emotional trailer and talked about how the show had been well-received at “taste maker” preview screenings.

It was a signal of the blitz that was coming. Comcast beamed extended “This Is Us” previews, trailers and behind the scenes interviews with cast members and producers to its cable subscribers (where the first three episodes of the show scored ratings that were 50% higher than non-Comcast homes). The segments also ran across NBCUniversal’s cable channels and on their related websites and digital platforms.

On the film side, Symphony has helped drive the box office higher, executives say.

Last July, “The Secret Life of Pets” gave Universal Pictures a $103-million opening weekend that set a record for a film not based on an existing franchise. Company executives would not disclose figures, but they said the film performed better in the 26 markets with Comcast cable systems that used “Pets” footage to promote XFinity Home, a security system the company rolled out.

NBCUniversal took a similar approach for Illumination’s most recent hit “Sing.” In the months before the holiday release, NBC had animated animal pop singers showing up in the Summer Olympics coverage, on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “The Voice.” Illumination spent a month creating animated versions of “Today” co-anchors Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie for a segment about the film that ran on the morning program.

“Sing” has earned about $270 million in domestic box office receipts since its Dec. 21 release.

NBCUniversal executives say there is no requirement or quota of promotional time or effort for divisions to give up to a Symphony campaign.

“It goes around the company enough that everyone has felt the benefit of it at some point — you give and you get,” said David O’Connor, executive vice president, worldwide promotions for Universal Pictures.

NBC has evolved since the days when it was under the ownership of industrial conglomerate General Electric and efforts at corporate synergy were more forced.

Littlefield remembers being contacted by then GE Chairman Jack Welch when the medical drama “ER” was at the height of its ratings popularity on NBC.

“He called one Friday morning to say ‘there are a number of GE employees who are really upset because there was a CT scan machine on the show and it wasn’t a GE,’” Littlefield recalled. “Sure enough, there was a GE CT scan machine delivered to the stage and that was what was used in the future.”

When GE acquired Universal Vivendi Entertainment in 2003, NBC became a full-fledged media conglomerate, using its TV networks to boost film releases and the launch of a Harry Potter attraction at Universal Orlando Resort. Not long after Illumination became part of Universal, the company had minions from “Despicable Me” scurrying across stock price quotes on CNBC and in other hard-to-avoid places on-screen, helping it become a huge hit in 2010.

The success of those efforts led Burke to formalize the process of developing the marketing efforts and branding them with the Symphony name after Comcast took over the company.

“We try to do everything that other big media companies don’t,” said NBCUniversal Chief Marketing Officer John Miller. “We talk about what’s coming up in the weeks ahead and how we did in the weeks behind. There are various presentations of business-sharing so we can have all the marketers learn from each other.”

“Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon attended a quarterly Symphony meeting in November to tout his own cross-promotional opportunity — a theme park attraction he conceived for Universal Orlando Resort called “Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon.” It re-creates a visit to the “Tonight Show” and Fallon’s favorite New York haunts. When the ride opens on April 6, visitors can get a whiff of his favorite pizza place as part of the experience.

“I can’t tell you how long he had this idea in his head,” said Tom Williams, chairman and chief executive of Universal Parks and Resorts. “But it was pretty well-polished.”

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio