Saturday Night Live

NBC Marks a Big Birthday

The network's 90th anniversary special, airing Sunday, offers a chance to look back and look ahead.

The most recent installment of "Saturday Night Live" scored the program's highest ratings in six years, as host Alec Baldwin and guest Melissa McCarthy lampooned the Trump Administration.

The strong showing highlights the current period of satire-inspiring turmoil. But in the larger scheme, the “SNL” triumph marks the product of a long-running show built to reflect changing, unpredictable times. 

"SNL," in its 42nd season, has been around for nearly half the life of NBC, which commemorates its nine decades, from radio to TV, with a special set to air Sunday. “The Paley Center Salutes NBC’s 90th Anniversary” offers an opportunity to celebrate not only the network, but the enduring impact of television at a time of media upheaval.

Embedded in NBC's DNA is formats designed to morph with the years and revolving personnel, though not without occasionally bumpy transitions (like the successions at "The Tonight Show," from Jack Paar's dethroning on). 

Still, the network’s franchises forge ahead: "Meet the Press," "Today," "The Tonight Show," "SNL" and "Late Night," in some respects, are bigger stars than the likes of Couric, Russert, Brokaw, Carson, Michaels, Letterman, Leno, Fallon and a slew of other big names associated with NBC marquee shows through the decades.

Dramas, from the live production of “Marty” in 1953 to “Hill Street Blues” to “ER” to the current breakout “This is Us,” dot the NBC landscape. But you don’t have to be Jim Rockford or Columbo to deduce that the crux of network’s entertainment legacy resides in comedy – not only in late night, but in prime time, from Berle to Hope to Cosby to Seinfeld to various Friends.

While CBS made the first major splash with socially conscious sitcoms ("All in the Family," "MASH"), NBC has exerted it own impact, whether or not you like the results. 

"The Golden Girls" bathed its pro-feminist, anti-ageist message in wisecracks. Some credited "The Cosby Show," pre-Bill Cosby's disgrace, with helping pave the way for Barack Obama's presidency. In 2012, then-Vice President Joseph Biden declared "Will & Grace" aided the push for same-sex marriage.

The Peabody Awards folks mused that Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin imitation on “SNL” may have swayed the 2008 election. "The Apprentice" became a political launching pad for our current president.

We'll see if or how any of this is addressed during Sunday's special, hosted by Kelsey Grammer, who holds his own place in the NBC record books. Grammer's Frasier Crane, from "Cheers" and "Frasier," had the longest run of any non-animated sitcom character in TV history.

His rich baritone is among the many symbols of NBC, along with the chimes and slogans past (“Proud as a peacock”) and ongoing ("Live from New York...”).

The “SNL” Trump boost, if anything, presented a reminder that we're past the era of must-see, appointment-driven TV. Ratings aside, it’s likely people who viewed Baldwin and McCarthy’s performances online will outnumber those who watched in real time. 

The 90th anniversary special promises to be packed with clips worth another look as TV peeks back and peers ahead to a future when change is likely to come at an even rapider pace as NBC heads to 100.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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