Now that Late Night War II has come full circle and NBC (GE) is facing ridicule from boardrooms to living rooms, it’s become fashionable to assess what happened in terms of gross managerial incompetence. That isn’t entirely true.
Many of the events that led to the current crisis were the result of decisions that were precarious but not irrational. The problem starts back in 2004, when NBC announced that Conan O’Brien would succeed Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show in 2009. There was some sound thinking behind that decision. It was logical to believe (and I suspect NBC had research to suggest) that by 2009 the dominance of an aging Leno would be giving way to the rise of the more iconoclastic young O’Brien. With memories of the chaos and indecision of Late Night War I (which put Leno on Tonight in the first place), NBC sensibly wanted to have the order of succession established ahead of time, with the successor happy and under contract. This type of early-decision strategy had worked well, after all, with Brian Williams’ replacement of Tom Brokaw on NBC Nightly News.
When 2009 finally arrived, though, Leno was still in first place and in no mood to give up his desk to Conan. Putting Leno on in prime time was an ingenious if highly risky idea. It solved a lot of problems, and was a forward-thinking way of making an effort to address the changing economies of broadcast TV. If it had worked, it would have been considered the greatest programming coup of the century. Needless to say, it didn’t: NBC’s measure of success didn’t square with that of its affiliates.
The initial idea of moving Leno back to 11:35 for just a half hour was like pounding on a puzzle piece to force it to fit where it doesn’t belong: It was financially inefficient (a 30-minute Leno would cost almost as much as a 60-minute version with half the advertising revenue) and dependent on Leno’s being able to adapt to a new rhythm. O’Brien at 12:05, on the other hand, may not have been such a bad idea. Conan works best the later it gets, and a good portion of his fan base has probably not even staggered home until after midnight. NBC’s latest moves may have been ham-handed, but Conan’s departure may be worse for Conan than it will be for NBC.
Over the decade and a half of the The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the host lost a mere 10% of the audience he inherited from the legendary Johnny Carson. That performance stands as one of the most impressive and outstanding achievements in a TV industry that was defined by network-TV ratings erosion during that period. In just a matter of weeks, Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show ratings dropped precipitously, by half, and they showed no indication of rebounding.
While Leno’s ratings at 10 p.m. were not stellar, The Jay Leno Show was far closer to meeting the expectations that NBC’s programmers and researchers had set in advance of their shift away from 10 p.m. dramas. But the reaction of NBC affiliates and the impact on the already-troubled late local-news time period made it untenable for NBC to continue the trial. Acting quickly, new NBC programming chief Jeff Gaspin and NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker devised a strategy that they hoped would keep both Leno and O’Brien in the NBC family. Being too nice was their mistake.
They should have simply moved Leno back to where he belongs—at 11:35—for a full hour, and offered to return O’Brien to his original time slot or allowed him to leave. It never made sense for Leno to move to a 30-minute warm-up act for O’Brien’s Tonight Show. The overriding truth is that The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien was a ratings disaster threatening one of TV’s most valuable franchises.
What O’Brien got right is that The Tonight Show is too important to be relegated to 12:05 a.m. The best move all along is the one that has emerged from the reality-show swamp that late-night TV sunk into during the past few weeks: Jay Leno is back where he belongs as host of The Tonight Show for a full hour at 11:35 (10:35 Central) and all of us have been reminded again how important a role network TV plays in our lives.
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