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It wasn’t the writers strike this time. Nor audience-draining competition from “American Idol” or cable or DVRs. This mess with Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno was TV network self-abuse and NBC has nothing to blame but its own executive decisions. NBC opting to return to its previous schedule (with scripted programming at 10 p.m. and Jay Leno at 11:35 p.m.) will likely help right-size the boat, but The Great “Leno Show” Experiment of ’09 has quite the price tag. Here’s eight ways the peacock just blew it:
1. Conan O’Brien: Has NBC created a monster? Conan is perceived asthe hero (he slew NBC!), the victim (NBC mistreated him!) and, now, the Lotto winner ($35 million? $40 million?). Whether his likable presencecan hold together this trio of labels without a backlash remains tobe seen. Either way, NBC will likely have to contend with Conan — astar the network helped create — taking on an even more dangerous identity: competitor. The prospect of O’Brien going to top-rated Fox is like what “World Poker Tour” commentator Mike Sexton says during a tournament whenever a card player loses chips to a talented pro: “You don’t want to put fire into that dragon.”
2. Reputation: NBC went from the hard luck network under Kevin Reilly, to the reality andbargain basement brand under Ben Silverman. But it’s never been regarded quite like this — like Machiavelli starring in a “Saturday Night Live” pratfall sketch. NBC courts Web-literate youthful TV fans with shows such as “Heroes,” “30 Rock,” “The Office” and “Community.” Well, those are the same sort of viewers who are bashing the networkonline.
3. Ratings: Down. Partly due to The Leno Effect*, the network is hastaken a hard hit in primetime and late night. In prime, the network has slipped more than any major broadcaster this season, -7%.
4. Jay Leno: Jay Leno prides himself on not employing a personal PRteam. No agent. When you’re dealing with Team Leno, it’s just him and hislawyer, unlike the high-powered WME-backed TeamConan branding machine. Well, perhaps a publicist, or six, might not be a bad idea. Lenokeeps being vilified, but his biggest sin ismere passivity with NBC’s disastrous plans — I mean, does anybody reallyexpect late night’s traditionally top-rated talk-show host to fall on his sword and reject a job offer to help out Conan?After pooping the bed at 10 p.m., and being hit with so muchnegative press, NBC’s fastest racehorse has a lot of mud on him.And, hey, that ain’t mud.
5. Jeff Zucker: Speaking of tarnished personal brands, the NBC Uni CEO’s name in recent weeks has become synonymous with profane words in headlines such as “Jeff Zucked It Up!” and “NBC to Continue to Zuck.”** A leader is judged by the quality of his or her decisions and this has been like Judgment Day writ large. Given newish NBC Uni TV chairman Jeff Gaspin’s declaration that he needed convince Zucker to let him make the tough decision, followed by Zucker’s buddy Dick Ebersol firing back in The New York Times that this was actually Conan’s fault and not — as Gaspin said — the affiliatedefections due to Leno, it seems battle lines may have already been drawn. You mischievous kids just wait until your Comcast parents come home! (FYI, there was some truth to Ebersol’s against-the-grain comment: “Leno Show” clearly did the most damage, but people forget that Conan eroded the “Tonight” audience by a couple million viewers before “Leno Show” even launched in September).
6. Money: How does this move not bust NBC’s already belt-tightened budget? NBC sources say the network expects the $40 million cost of paying off Conan O’Brien, as well as the high price of suddenly producing more pilots to fill the 10 p.m. hole will be offset by the savings of doing one less weekday talk show and the expected gains from selling higher-cost advertising for scripted series at 10 p.m. Now, considering what NBC was saying about the economics of 10 p.m. six months ago, that’s such a wild 180-degree spin maneuver it makes NBCexecutives look like Shawn White. Second, it’s tough to believe that these changes will allow NBC to recoup what has to be at least $100 million of additional costs by the end of the year (NBC Universal cut its company-wide budget by $500 million just two years ago, which is 3% of its annual operating costs, just to give you an idea of what their overall picture is like). O’Brien’s $40 million could have paid for about eight drama pilots instead of paying a talk-show host to not host a talk show. And yet these unexpected costs were the result of NBC implementing its “Leno Show” strategy to save money. It’s been like some network version of a “Final Destination” movie, where the fearful teenager tries everything they can to avoid a specific deadly fate and therefore ensures its outcome, leaving NBC impaled on a windmill or something.
7. Development: NBC is now scrambling to get back into the scripted game. But developing hit shows takes time, which NBC lost by assuming it didn’t have to worry about 10 p.m. anymore. It also requires positive relationships with the creative community, which is feeling more than a little chaffed by NBC’s dismissive attitude toward writers during this process. One suspects this relationship is already getting patched up, since the network has pilots from the likes of David E. Kelley, J.J. Abrams and Jerry Bruckheimer. “Every showrunner wants to have the bragging rights that they were the one who saved NBC,” said an industry talent agent. Still, just one talented showrunner picking Fox over NBC in a bidding war can beall the difference between a network launching a hit or a flop in thefall. (And if you think nobody predicted NBC’s up-and-back maneuver with Leno and O’Brien see the block quote in this 2008 Live Feed post).
8. Late night: Are you ready for more Jimmy Fallon?
* Copyright 2009, The Live Feed, use only with citation, thx
** That second headline was mine
O’Brien finalizing exit from NBC
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Conan O’Brien leaving NBC
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Conan O’Brien monologue mocks NBC
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Conan pushes back: Now what?
NBC confirms Jay Leno out of primetime
Jay Leno talk turns to Conan O’Brien
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