Jay Leno & NBC: Smart Move… or Sheer Stupidity?

Hey, folks—

I wanted to take a few minutes today to weigh in on what everyone seems to talking about this week… NBC’s announcement that Jay Leno is moving to primetime (10 p.m. PST) with a new nightly talk show (tentatively titled The Jay Leno Show) that will mimic his Tonight Show format, which is being taken over and revamped by Conan O’Brien.

I’ve heard a lot of complaining and criticism about the decision, especially from others writers, but I gotta say…

I think it’s a smart move.  Maybe a really smart move.

Here are the basic criticisms of NBC’s decision…

•  It reduces the number of primetime hours NBC has to program, from 22 to 17 (meaning less time for scripted comedies and dramas that could air at 10 p.m., like E.R.)

•  It could hurt local TV stations by reducing their hours of scripted programming

•  It’s a move designed to save NBC’s floundering financials, rather than actually foster quality original programming

•  It hurts Conan by forcing him and Jay to compete for guests, also diluting The Tonight Show brand

•  The last time a primetime strip (daily show) was tried—with ABC’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire—they exhausted the brand and decimated their primetime lineup

•  It’s a desperate band-aid which can only fix a symptom, not a systemic NBC problem (that being NBC’s near-total failure to develop any successful new scripted shows)

Now, there’s some definite truth in many of these criticisms, but I think—for the most part—they’re unfair and inaccurate.  But before we look at exactly why, it’s important to understand where NBC is right now, financially, creatively, and commercially.

Basically… NBC is in trouble.  BIG trouble.  Over the last decade, they’ve fallen from their perch as the most successful and powerful network in television history to fourth place.  The hit shows of the ‘90’s and early 2000’s—Friends, Seinfeld, E.R., Frasier, Will & Grace, The West Wing—are all but gone.  Last year, NBC-Universal CEO Jeff Zucker fired NBC president Kevin Reilly for developing too many shows that were critical darlings but not commercial successes (you know, like 30 Rock, The Office, and Friday Night Lights).  Zucker replaced Reilly with Ben Silverman, a cocky agent-cum-producer who developed The Office and Ugly Betty… but had no experience working at a network.  Since then, Silverman hasn’t given NBC a single hit, driving its ratings further into the ground.

Now, to be fair, ALL the broadcast networks are floundering.  Ratings are down, ad revenue is plummeting, and every one is starting to sweat.  Meanwhile, cable networks are nipping at their heels, and the Internet is threatening to wipe out both broadcast AND cable technologies, completely revamping the way our TV sets receive content.

To make matters worse for NBC, however, Peacock execs decided four years ago to replace The Tonight Show host Jay Leno with Conan O’Brien in 2009, feeling they needed a younger, “hipper” audience.  Unfortunately, for NBC, Leno’s ratings have remained high… and as soon as Hollywood learned Leno had been set free, rival networks and studios came calling.  Zucker claimed he would do his best to keep Leno at NBC, but Leno did little to hide his anger at NBC brass…

Until this week, when NBC made their surprise announcement, claiming the Leno-to-10-PM move was a win-win for everyone, allowing NBC to keep Leno… and bolster its primetime lineup.

So let’s go through the move point-by-point and look at the criticisms levied by its naysayers…

This simply isn’t accurate.  What IS true is that in this weak economy, Jeff Zucker, the CEO of NBC-Universal, and the heads of the other broadcast networks, have publicly contemplated reducing the number of primetime hours each network needs to program.  Right now, most of the big broadcasters program several hours of TV each day, including about 3 hours of primetime and a handful of late night and daytime.  The rest of each day’s hours are programmed by individual local stations that get paid to broadcast their network headquarters’ shows.  If a network WERE to reduce the number of hours it programs, giving some hours back to the local stations to program themselves, it would reduce the network’s costs (by shrinking the money it’s pumping into buying new shows) and reduce the amount of money it pays affiliates to air its content.

So yes… reducing its number of primetime hours would be a cost-saving move by a network.  But that’s not what this is.  NBC still owns all its primetime real estate; it’s simply filling five hours of it with talk show programming instead of traditional scripted programming.  Now, sure—this may be a step toward reducing the number of hours it programs… and Zucker has been a proponent of doing that… but it hasn’t actually happened yet.

Having said that, The Jay Leno Show WILL be significantly cheaper than any primetime scripted show NBC could program.  Primetime scripted programming usually costs about $3 million per hour; so the five hours NBC is revamping would total about $15 million per week.  This new Leno show will cost NBC less than $2 million per week.  Which not only means NBC will be saving money, it means it won’t need to take in as much ad revenue to turn a profit.  In fact, The Jay Leno Show will only need to reach between 6.5 and 10 million viewers to slaughter its predecessors, like NBC’s canceled My Own Worst Enemy (which averaged a pathetic 5.9 million viewers per episode) or Lipstick Jungle, and if it finds 10 million viewers, it’ll be a legitimate hit.

So, not only does NBC get to KEEP its primetime hours, it gets to program them with a more cost-effective show.

Also—not entirely accurate.  Sure, it’s fewer hours of scripted programming… but local stations, like networks, want RATINGS… and they don’t care if those ratings are coming from scripted shows or non-scripted.  In fact, they’d much rather have a successful primetime talk show from Jay Leno than a scripted failure like Kath & Kim… and Leno, unlike a new scripted show, comes with his own built-in audience.  In other words, The Jay Leno Show has no greater chance of hurting local stations than any other show.

In fact, if the Leno show is a success, it will only help local stations… as well all the shows around it.  A successful 10 pm Leno show can not only boo
st the ratings of its lead-in, the show before it, it can boost the ratings of its lead-out, the show AFTER it… which, for most local stations, is local news—one of their most profitable timeslots.  And as ad revenue declines even at local stations, local newscasts—a huge part of stations’ bread and butter—need all the help they can get.  

Yesterday, Peter Tolan, creator of FX’s Rescue Me, said, “It’s too bad that NBC is making choices primarily from a financial consideration vs. putting on the best possible work.”

I have to be honest… I find this comment ridiculous. Has Tolan SEEN the mediocre crap Ben Silverman has been putting on NBC?  This may BE the best possible work!  And while I am certainly a huge fan and supporter of scripted TV, it’s NOT always the best form of television.  Scripted TV doesn’t get the title of “best” just because it’s scripted.  I’d argue that The Amazing Race is one of the most innovative (when it first came out), compelling, sophisticated shows out there.  It certainly constitutes some of TV’s “best possible work,” even though it’s not scripted (and Survivor’s still pretty good, as well).  And there are plenty of scripted shows that certainly DON’T deserve to be on the air (yet you never hear writers bitching about shitty scripted shows, clamoring for their cancellation so we can get new and better unscripted series on air; shouldn’t we– as artists working in television– be striving to create the BEST SHOWS POSSIBLE, whether they’re dramas, comedies, reality shows, or talk shows?)

Now, to be fair—I understand this sentiment from writers’ perspective.  NBC’s decision DOES mean there are 5 fewer hours of broadcast programming to fill with scripted content, which makes it that much harder to sell a show.  But we’re also in an age where cable channels are thriving, opening up countless new places to sell series.  Plus, with the Internet poised to become the next big distribution mechanism, there’s bound to be even more outlets for storytellers and content creators.

(And by the way, what better proof of quality scripted television rising up on cable than Rescue Me, Peter Tolan’s own show?!  It’s a perfect example of the changing landscape of television.  I mean, come on—party of NBC’s dilemma is that cable is eroding its audience… thanks to great cable shows just like Mr. Tolan’s!)

Here’s what I find ironic about all these big-name writers bashing NBC for revamping its programming model: it was less than a year ago, when writers were striking for fair compensation, that writers were championing cable and new media as the future of TV… but now that they fear their livelihoods are more directly at stake, they’re ridiculing a network for abandoning its old models in response to the very changes they were endorsing!

In fact, if the Leno move succeeds, it may HELP scripted programming.  It could certainly give a boost to whatever scripted show NBC chooses to program as its lead-in, but it could also help NBC bounce back as well.  And as a writer, I’d certainly rather have an NBC with 17 hours of STRONG programming than 22 hours of crap.

I just don’t buy this.  A movie star, musician, author, or athlete wanting to promote her work wants as much promotion as possible… and wants to appear on as many shows as she possibly can.  Not to mention, Conan and Leno have slightly different audiences, meaning guests can reach more—and different—people by going on both shows.  If Leno were to leave NBC, he’d still have a show—probably scheduled directly against Conan’s—but it would be at FOX or ABC.  This way, he’s not only NOT competing directly against Conan, they’re benefiting the same network.

This one’s open to interpretation.  I mean, first of all—Who Wants To Be A Millionaire was a MASSIVE hit, and while yes—ABC eventually pounded it into the ground, it also opened the door for networks to schedule more (and more and more) hours of primetime non-scripted programming.  Now, I know this can be interpreted as the show’s biggest negative, but I don’t think that’s fair… Who Wants To Be A Millionaire paved the way for Survivor, The Amazing Race, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, American Idol, etc.  And while it’s easy to rag on reality as a genre, let’s be honest: these are some damn good non-fiction shows.  (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire also spawned The Littlest Groom, The Swan, The Will, etc…. but hey—there are plenty of crappy scripted shows out there, too.)

So ABC may have eventually sabotaged its own Millionaire success, but it also planted the seeds for some of the biggest shows in its (and television’s) history.

This I totally agree with; the Leno move IS a desperate band-aid… although it’s a band-aid that may work.

But the real problem is: rather than investing in developing great original material, NBC president Ben Silverman has spent most of his tenure adapting foreign shows, like Kath & Kim, and updating tepid remakes, like Knight Rider.  In fact, anything of note on NBC’s current schedule is a leftover from other presidents’ reigns: Law & Order (Brandon Tartikoff), E.R. (Warren Littlefield), The Office and 30 Rock (Kevin Reilly).  

And NBCU CEO Jeff Zucker has, for whatever reason, rewarded Silverman’s utter lack of success not only by keeping him around, but by firing the development team below him… as if Silverman has somehow been kicking ass, only to be undermined by those working beneath him.

Now, I want to be fair in my criticism here.  It’s easy to make punching bags out of Zucker and Silverman.  People love to lambaste Zucker for driving NBC from first to fourth place… but he was also instrumental in expanding and strengthening the rest of NBCU’s TV empire: emboldening Sci-Fi and Bravo and making USA America’s top cable network in target demos.  Some might say—and trust me, I’m not—that Zucker saw the writing on the wall years ago and realized how network and cable TV were swapping places.  (And again– I’m NOT saying that, I’m just saying… you could make that argument if you wanted to.)

As for Ben Silverman… he was a great agent at William Morris and a great producer at Reveille, where he proved he had an eye for nabbing foreign TV formats like The Office, Kath & Kim, and Ugly Betty and turning them into hit shows.  But finding already-existing successes, then overseeing their adaptation, is a markedly different skill set than programming an entire network… and so far, Ben Silverman has done nothing but fail at that (and then blame other people).

I say that because: I don’t think Jeff and Ben are idiots.  I think they may be arrogant (Silverman was off skiing this week when his entire staff was unexpectedly fired… and < a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/12/04/paidcontent/main4648290.shtml">500 other NBC staffers were laid off), and they may be self-preserving, but they’ve both accomplished impressive things.  What they don’t seem to be able to do is recognize their own infallibility and realize the misguided-ness of their creative development strategies.

So yes… the Leno move is a desperate band-aid from desperate men trying desperately to save their network (and their own asses).  But it just might work.  

After all, the TV landscape IS changing.  We read every day about how the broadcast networks are dying.  Yesterday in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Alan Sepinwall lamented that “NBC is becoming less a big broadcaster than just another channel in the NBC Universal cable empire.”  And I was like, “Uh— yeah, it basically already it is.”  NBC brings in less than 25% of NBCU’s total revenue… the rest is from cable and movies.

Having said that— I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.  I mean, yeah— it’s a huge change from the old way of doing business… but I’m not sure the death of the broadcast networks is something worth mourning.  I also don’t think “death” is the right concept… I think we’re seeing a huge leveling out, where broadcast nets are shrinking while cable is rising up, and soon we’ll be in a landscape where there are just many, many channels… but the broadcasters won’t necessarily rule.  NBC and CBS will be equals and rivals with USA, FX, Bravo, etc.  Is that such a bad thing?  I’m not sure it is… especially since many of those cable networks are producing better shows than the broadcasters anyway (Mad Men, Californication, Monk, Psych, BSG…)

So who cares if broadcast TV goes away?  Writers and producers certainly shouldn’t be.  The explosion of cable—and eventually Internet outlets—just means we’ll have even more places to sell our stories and ideas.  

The only ones who should be genuinely worried are the broadcast networks themselves… but being worried doesn’t mean “hit the panic button.”  NBC, ABC, CBS, and FOX aren’t going away any time soon.  They may change shape.  They may become cable networks.  But there is still a place for them in the TV universe, providing quality content to that box in people’s living rooms.  They may not be providing that content over radio waves, but again—is that such a big deal?  I don’t think so… and I don’t think audiences do, either.  Viewers want the most entertaining programming possible… whether that’s a brilliant scripted show like Grey’s Anatomy or Family Guy or House… or a talk show like The Jay Leno Show or Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show.  The networks simply need to realize that change is inevitable… and survival depends not on them scrambling to salvage outdated business models, but on experimenting with adaptation and evolution.  (Which—whether it fails or succeeds—I think is exactly what the Leno move is about.)

So where does all this leave us…?

Well, basically—I think it leaves us with a once-great network that has been cannibalized from the inside out… and at an unfortunate moment in history when the broadcast business model needs some serious revamping.  Which means NBC is at the center of a perfect storm, being battered from all sides by many forces—some under its control, others not so much.

I don’t know, honestly, if the Leno move will work in the long haul… but I think it can.  And I think it’s a smart attempt at plugging—at least temporarily—a dangerous leak in the boat.  

The truth is, the person with the most at risk is Jay Leno.  If the show fails, he’s out of a job (not that he’s hurting for money).  But NBC will just replace it with another sensational reality series… or perhaps a new stab at a scripted show.  In other words, NBC itself doesn’t have much to lose.

And if the maneuver works… well… Leno wins, Zucker and Silverman are happy, and—hopefully—NBC finds itself back on the road to being a kick-ass network… which is good news for ANYONE working in television.

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2 thoughts on “Jay Leno & NBC: Smart Move… or Sheer Stupidity?

  1. DJG

    I like the idea of Leno with a prime-time talk/variety show. I’m tired of watching episode after episode of CSI etc. If Leno’s new show turns out to be a throw-back to the 60’s and 70’s (ala Johnny Carson), it might bring my generation back to the tube on these winter nights.