The Lessons of Leno (for NBC)

DFN: Pretty interesting goings on at NBC, wonder if it has anything to do with the Comcast ‘takeover’? This is doubly interesting in that the article make a linkage between what’s happened in print media and what will happen in TV / Radio.

Lessons of Leno: Why the Future Failed for NBC
By James Poniewozik Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010,8599,1953355,00.html

If Jay Leno were to have his NBC bosses on his show, he could ask them what he famously did Hugh Grant in 1995: "What the hell were you thinking?"

NBC made clear what the hell it was thinking in creating The Jay Leno Show. It was trying to adjust to the post–Big Media world. With cable, DVR and online media snagging viewers, programming a full night of expensive TV was a bygone luxury. Leno might get lower ratings than NBC’s 10 p.m. dramas, but those were struggling anyway and cost much more. (See the top 10 Jay Leno moments.)

It got one thing right: the ratings were lower. To be fair to NBC, so were the costs. Even getting no more viewers than Leno did in late night, the network was reportedly ahead in ad revenue. But that was no comfort to NBC’s affiliates, the local stations that make up the network by agreeing to air NBC shows. Their nightly newscasts suffering, they found The Jay Leno Show even less amusing than TV critics did and threatened to revolt.

So as of Feb. 12, Leno at 10 will be a memory. With that, NBC showed itself to be in the same boat as the rest of Big Media — caught between an old business model that is no longer working and a new one that hasn’t yet been invented.

It’s easy to mock NBC, which fell to fourth place over a decade, put a retread of The Tonight Show in prime time, alienated TV-drama producers and publicly shafted Conan O’Brien, who said he would quit Tonight rather than move so that NBC could shoehorn Leno in at 11:35. As I wrote in a TIME cover last year, Leno’s show was a paradox: a radical experiment with TV’s most old-fashioned, middle-of-the-road star. It proved to be an unsustainable contradiction. (See the top 10 Conan O’Brien moments.)

But if The Jay Leno Show was exactly the wrong solution for NBC’s problems, those problems remain real, and they are not only NBC’s. DVRs and online media are still killing ad money, and audiences are still shrinking. There may not be room for three big networks programming three hours a night anymore.

Problem is, NBC still has to operate in the old system. That system depends on affiliates, the infrastructure of broadcast TV since Uncle Miltie’s day. (Right now, those affiliates have great, if temporary, leverage, because NBC needs them to play nice while it’s being sold to cable operator Comcast.) And it depends on pleasing an audience used to ER and Law & Order at 10, not Jaywalking. (See TIME’s photo-essay "Behind the Scenes with Jay Leno.")

NBC’s experiment was the most radical attempt to change the TV business model, but it wasn’t the only one. Fox recently got Time Warner Cable to agree to pay to retransmit Fox’s free over-the-air signal, suggesting that broadcasters could someday operate more like cable channels (with cable subscribers paying for it). Reality shows and newsmagazines are, like the Leno show, devices to fill prime time on the cheap — and they’ll fill some of the vacuum left by Leno.

The catch is that each adjustment to the new, cheap world risks losing people who liked the old, expensive one. Broadcast TV once thrived by pitching a big tent. But now the various poles of that tent — Jay fans, Conan fans, etc. — don’t particularly want to share the same campsite, and they no longer have to. (See the top 10 late-night jokes of 2009.)

In this respect, NBC has a lot in common with print media. I recently talked with a neighbor annoyed about the number of typos she said she’s been seeing in the New York Times. The editors are probably stretched thin, I said; the Times just went through a big round of layoffs. That’s terrible, she agreed. Anyway, she said, she was going to drop her weekday subscription. Why should she pay all that money and get typos?

Of course, losing subscribers is not exactly going to help beef up the Times’s copydesk. But as a consumer, she had a point: Why pay for a product that disappoints her? So what if the newspaper business model is challenging. That’s not her problem. Just fix it! (See pictures of Judd Apatow’s war on Jay Leno.)

That’s the same bind that NBC, and media companies at large, are in. People aren’t going to enjoy watching a lame prime-time talk show for the satisfaction of knowing they’re helping the parent company save on payroll. People who expect something else — lavish scripted dramas or typo-free news from costly foreign bureaus — will get alienated and leave, only deepening the revenue spiral that led to the cuts in the first place.

Having been burned by the Leno experiment, NBC now says it’s going "back to basics." If only it could. I hope the end of Leno at 10 will open room for great new shows on NBC, but the basics of TV aren’t going to revert back to the flush 20th century days. Instead, NBC will focus not on inventing TV’s next business plan but on trying to be one of the networks left standing when the old plan finally craps out. Simple tooth-and-claw survival: it’s the oldest business model of all.


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