Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Et Tu, NBC! The Unlearned Lessons of the Leno/O'Brien Affair

I have no sympathy for NBC’s head Jeff Zucker over the imbroglio he’s currently involved in over the network’s decision to scrap Jay Leno’s weekly 10 PM hour long talk show slot, mere months after launching it, and bumping him back to 11:35 pm. Zucker and the network brass had fully expected that Conan O’Brien, the current host of The Tonight Show, would thus agree to having his show move back to 12:05 am, to accommodate Leno’s return to late night TV, albeit in a shortened half hour time slot. The problem for Zucker and the network is that O’Brien, who was promised The Tonight Show gig five years ago in order to entice him not to go to another network, didn’t agree with that programming decision and has decided to leave the network instead, accepting a massive million buyout from it in the process. He had made it explicitly clear, on air, that he would rather leave NBC altogether than give in to his network boss’s wishes.

The reason, of course, for overhauling NBC’s primetime schedule, is that Leno's ratings were low, reportedly dropping from 18 million viewers at 11:35 pm to an astounding 5 million at 10 pm, and, most important, also adversely affecting the newscasts following his show, the ones airing on NBC’s many affiliate stations, who count on viewers staying on to watch the news after the 10 PM show is over. Audiences used to do that when one of NBC’s dramas occupied that time slot but with Leno in that slot, they were jumping to other networks or tuning out altogether. This occurred despite the fact that, reportedly, ad revenues weren’t any lower for NBC with Leno in prime time.

NBC should have seen the risks inherent in its decision to placate and keep both Leno and O’Brien by adopting the strategy they did. James Poniewozik, for one, in his Time magazine cover story on Leno’s move to primetime last September, pointed out that the network’s affiliates would be furious if the ratings went down when Leno moved to 10 pm, so obviously these affiliate concerns would have been transmitted to Zucker at the time and, obviously, ignored by him. (He had to browbeat Boston’s affiliate station to stay with Leno or lose its status as an NBC station.)

The move away from scripted 10 pm programming, to cheaper non – fiction fare at NBC and the network’s decision to dump the 10 PM Leno so quickly, is sad, coming from the network which once brought us such TV highlights as Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and ER and which used to nurture original shows, such as Hill Street, Law & Order and Seinfeld, when their initial ratings were low. NBC still occasionally sticks with critically respected low rated dramas, like Friday Night Lights, but mostly it’s become an expedient operation, which doesn’t value imagination or loyalty. No wonder it’s in fourth place among the broadcast networks.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the unthinking, lemming-like media, except for a story I caught on CBC TV, are framing this affair as a simplistic story of a good guy (O’Brien) being undone by a bad guy (Leno). But it seems to me that they’ve both been victimized by the network; Leno, who like his predecessor Johnny Carson, was forced to leave The Tonight Show before he wanted to and O’Brien, who was similarly expected to do something he didn’t want to do, which was to move to a later time slot to make way for Leno. (CBS did the same thing to the venerable Walter Cronkite, forcing him to retire in 1981 to make way for Dan Rather, who pretty much damaged the quality of CBS’s nightly newscast, before being forced to resign in 2005 over an inaccurate news story.) I wish Leno would also have quit NBC, forcing them to look even more foolish in the bargain but unlike Conan O’Brien, whose ‘hip’ quotient makes him attractive to other networks like Fox, which likely will take him on, Leno doesn’t really have anywhere to go.

But all this moving Leno about can’t disguise the fact that the four big networks are like the passengers who moved the deck chairs on the Titanic. The networks are hemorrhaging viewers, to more enticing and provocative cable offerings, and have ceased to be relevant, except for the few times when they broadcast special events, like the Olympics or the Super Bowl. It used to be that primetime TV mattered to many people, as when J.R. was shot or M*A*S*H went off the air. That’s no longer the case but you wouldn’t know it from how Zucker et al are benignly spinning the decision to move Leno back to where he used to be. They’re framing it as a programming gamble that didn’t pay off but, crucially, aren’t asking themselves why it failed as it did. As I said, I hold no brief for Zucker. His days are numbered but knowing how the networks do things and continue to resist necessary change, their death knell and Zucker’s eventual firing, will take a lot longer than they need to. I can’t wait.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto

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