Maybe NBC should just start over and hire Triumph the Insult Comic Dog

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NBC kept insisting it was not going to abandon drama.

The one it has piloted -- or, more correctly, lost control of -- during the past 10 days would make even Dick Wolf jealous. Who knew that comedy could be so serious, or that the comics would be so totally in control of the public messaging? Tune in to any channel any night this week to hear how each of them is playing the ruckus, not only for laughs but also for strategic advantage.

Leaving aside the egg on its face, the Peacock is likely to be in hock for this debacle for nearly what it costs to mount a 10 p.m. fictional series (the very thing it was trying to get around): as much as $20 million in payout dough to smooth an exit for the very irked Conan O'Brien. Jay Leno, it is presumed, will get his nut whether he performs for a half-hour or an hour, so if it's the former, the network will lose moneywise there as well. CBS rival David Letterman even hazarded that the Peacock could be on the hook for $40 million, but then any such inflation is good for all entertainers.

Worse than the money (for NBC anyway) would be a scenario in which lawyers for the network and O'Brien dig in their heels over the working of the pompadoured host's contract, and this thing threatens to end up in court.

The seeds of the kerfuffle over the late-night luminaries unknowingly were planted five years ago -- way too long for a long-term commitment in this field -- when Jeff Zucker and company agreed that Leno would step aside and O'Brien would inherit the "Tonight Show" mantle. The monkey wrench was that Leno's ratings held up over those years -- compounded, of course, by the decision to hold on to the comic no matter what overtures rival networks were making and at the same time try to save money at the expense of those 10 p.m. drama series.

Several folks did voice their perplexity about this move, but internally at the network apparently none did so loudly enough.

Just having Leslie Moonves at CBS joking about it publicly should have been warning enough. As several pundits put it this week, NBC's "insularity" has been the biggest contributor to its recent missteps.

In retrospect, time slots do matter, and decades-old viewings habits die hard -- maybe even decades-old habits of performing for one time slot or another. Somehow, Leno at 10 p.m. was just not the same showman of 11:35 p.m. He seemed to be trying too hard. Too many viewers shrugged and switched over to "CSI" on CBS or "Private Practice" on ABC. It took the traditionally sheepish station-affiliate community to get the general disgruntlement across, and only after their local newscasts began to suffer because of Leno's lackluster 10 p.m. ratings.

Late-night and morning shows, and even primetime newscasts, are their own beasts with their own finite audiences -- fiercely loyal and quick to take umbrage on behalf of the guy or gal they tune in to watch. Right now online, it is Leno who is taking most of the knocks, and O'Brien is being commended for standing up to the uncaring corporate behemoth.

A mere tenth of a tick in the ratings can take years to edge one network over another, as Katie Couric has learned -- and as her bosses at CBS have resigned themselves to. And any decision to pull the plug in these slots almost always has unintended and increasingly far-reaching consequences. Even 20 years ago at NBC. That's when the powers-that-were decided to push popular "Today" anchor Jane Pauley overboard and bring in younger, blonder Deborah Norville, setting off a firestorm.

The move eventually changed the dynamics of morning TV, and I guess it illustrates what we all imagined is true: History has a way of repeating itself, and with the Internet, mistakes become bigger than ever before.

And they spill over. We can only imagine the conversation back in Philly among NBC Universal's likely new bosses. Brian to Steve: "And I thought retrans was a headache. How are we going to handle problems like this?"

Presumably, Comcast chieftains will have a year to figure that out as their $30 billion deal for a majority stake wends its way through Washington corridors. One thing I'd bet is that execs on the cable side -- at Comcast and NBC -- will play key roles in sorting out the Peacock's missteps once Roberts and Burke are in charge.

But back to O'Brien. One of the ironies of the shenanigans is that his rather modest audience has seen a substantial boost during the past few days because people naturally are curious to see how the entertainer handles himself through the predicament. Leaving aside the self-reverential tone of his public statement in refusing to be pushed back to 12:05 a.m., his on-air shtick -- as in, "I'm now available for children's parties" -- struck a cleverer note.

While his people and Leno's people try to comb through the debris, Fox is trying to figure out whether it's worth making a run at Conan. Previous attempts at mounting a late show notwithstanding -- think Joan Rivers then a revolving door of entertainers from Richard Belzer to Arsenio Hall -- he would seem to personify the Fox ethos as much as any of the late-night performers.

On the other hand, Fox affiliates will be just as happy to continue with their reruns of "Seinfeld," "The Simpsons" and "Two and a Half Men" because late fringe is a lucrative block for them, and ratings for these reruns far outstrip those for late-night gabbers.

In any case, Fox likely has to give stations six months' notice to recapture the time slot, so we're talking September before Conan could appear there. He might be too antsy for that.

Syndicators, where are you? There's a deal waiting to happen.
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