This Is Us was fall TV’s breakout hit, but it took a village—and a savvy woman—to make it what it is today. In an interview with Variety, NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke said some of her peers thought taking on a character-driven drama like This Is Us was a risk for the network.
“I had calls from heads of other companies and they asked me, ‘How did you get behind this show? This took such courage,'” Salke told Variety.
“But I really didn’t feel courageous doing it. I felt so lucky to have a script like that, because I felt that the landscape was so overflowing with, say, cop procedurals. I was like, ‘Uh, I don’t know if I’m going to watch all of these shows. Where’s the show for me?’ And this was a show that I would watch.”
Still, Salke admitted that This Is Us wouldn’t have been successful without a perfect storm.
“[This Is Us] wouldn’t have succeeded the way it succeeded without the perfect moment at NBC where things were going well,” the NBC exec said. “We were able to start talking more about who’s actually watching these shows? And what we found out was that audiences aren’t actually shrinking. They’re growing in some situations.”
Salke said she knew This Is Us would be a hit from the moment the first script landed on her desk.
“I know it sounds crazy, but when I got that pilot script for This Is Us, I said, ‘This is the kind of show that could be on the cover of Time magazine,'” she revealed. “I knew.”
Salke pointed to shows like Thirty Something, which have all but disappeared from today’s TV landscape because they aren’t seen as “great pieces of international commerce.” The executive added that the message over the past 25 years has been: “Don’t deliver anything serialized,” and focus on action, high stakes, and big name stars. In other words, the complete opposite of This Is Us. But Salke went with her gut.
“When it came to This Is Us, it was mostly men who would say, ‘How could you go out on a limb like that? That took some balls. I remember thinking, it did? Maybe it just took a vagina, because I just had this feeling that that This Is Us was going to be magical. And it was.”
While Salke’s spot-on female initiation was the first step in This Is Us’ success, the second ingredient came via a clever marketing strategy in which various divisions of NBC Universal work together to promote a single project. According to the Los Angeles Times, the massive marketing push known as Symphony has been dubbed the “secret sauce” for launching TV shows, movies, special events, and even theme park attractions.
A summertime This Is Us“pep rally” kicked off an extensive media campaign that included extended This Is Us trailers and sneak peek interviews with cast members. The segments aired on Comcast and on NBC Universal’s cable channels and on their related websites and digital platforms.
Symphony definitely worked for This Is Us: The NBC ensemble drama drew more than 15 million viewers for the Feb 21 episode, “Memphis,” giving NBC its best numbers in that time slot in 10 years. This Is Us garnered nearly 18 million viewers for its season finale and was the top broadcast network drama among the all-important 18 to 49 demographic.
Just a few episodes in, This Is Us got a rare, two-season renewal, paving the way for fans to get emotionally invested in the fate of the beloved Pearson clan. Salke told Deadline that This Is Us’ two-season pickup was a no-brainer, saying today’s TV viewers are looking for shows that have “more emotional content and more authenticity to them.”
“[This Is Us] capitalizes on people’s need for free therapy,” the NBC president joked.
This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman has long credited the show’s balance between humor and heavy emotion as a key to its success.
“If you hit that tone right, it can be everything,” the This Is Us creator told NPR.
Fogelman also nailed the casting, hiring handsome Heroes alum Milo Ventimiglia as patriarch Jack Pearson, despite the fact that he originally planned for a more average-looking actor in the role.
“I knew the cast was going to kill before we shot a frame [of film],” the This Is Us creator said. “The actors are so truthful, it feels real.”
Take a look at the video below to see the This Is Us cast and showrunners talking about the show’s season finale.
This Is Us returns to NBC this fall for Season 2.
[Featured Image by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images]