Matt's Question: What's Your Take on Leno/Conan?

Hey, guys—


Thanks for all the comments and emails, which I’ve been
wading through and will get to shortly! 
Jon H. and Jennifer… your questions are on deck, but I wanted to be get
to Matt’s post about the Leno/Conan situation while it’s still in the zeitgeist…


I won’t re-post Matt’s entire comment, although you can read
it HERE.  But he’s basically weighing in and asking my thoughts on the whole Leno/Conan craziness.  So in response…


First of all, I have to say—I find this whole thing
fascinating to watch play out.  Not
only because of the hosts’ jabs and insults, but just because of how it seems
to represent and incorporate so much of televisions’ current growing
pains.  Having said that, some
thoughts (and these are truly just thoughts, not answers, because NBC has
tangled themselves into such a mess that I wouldn’t even know how to speculate
about how to get out of it)…


1)  I don’t
blame Jay Leno.  This isn’t his
fault, and I don’t think it’s fair to call him a “scumbag,” an “asshole,” or
“weasel-ly.”  He’s not making these
decisions; Jeff Zucker, Mark Gaspin, and Jeff Graboff are.  And while they certainly couldn’t
return Jay Leno to “The Tonight Show” (or, last year, move him to 10 pm)
without Jay’s permission, he’s not pulling those strings. 


Could Jay decline the offer and refuse to return?  Sure… but I don’t know many people who
would do that.  (Honestly, if I got
fired, and then my old boss realized he’d made a mistake and wanted me to back,
would I take the job, knowing it would mean my replacement would be out of a
job?  Probably.  I think most people would.) 


Also, remember—this whole mess started because Jay got
screwed long before Conan O’Brien, when—five years ago—NBC decided it was time to put
him out to pasture.  Unfortunately
for NBC, Jay used the next five years to prove them wrong.  So when it came time to actually make
the transition, they suddenly found themselves in the uncomfortable position of
replacing a winning horse with a much less successful horse… but they’d already
made the commitment, so they tried their 10 pm-“Jay Leno Show” as a solution.


(Having said that, I do think Jay could handle this
better.  I don’t think it’s fair of
him to take little pot-shots at Conan. 
I mean, he’s clearly coming out the winner here.   And it seems disingenuous of him
to crack jokes about how “The Jay Leno Show” was canceled and he was “fired.”  You’re not “canceled” or “fired” if the
network is bending over backwards to re-arrange their entire late-night
schedule for you and give you a much better show.)



2)  While I
personally find Conan funnier and more creative than Leno, the truth is—if you
look at the numbers, which is pretty much all the networks look at—Jay makes a
“better” show.  And by “better,” I
mean a show that moves more people.


We can debate each host’s comic strengths all day, but one
thing is undeniable: Jay’s ratings are, and always have been, substantially
higher than Conan’s.  Leno’s
“Tonight Show” pulled in 5.2 million viewers per night last year; Conan’s
“Tonight Show” pulls in only 2.5 million. 
(Granted, there are other factors at play.  Perhaps, most importantly, the fact that Conan has a much
weaker lead-in since he basically follows Jay Leno doing the exact same show.)


So if you want to talk immediate economics, Jay Leno
is—whether you like him or hate him—the sounder choice.  You can argue that Conan is a better
bet in the long run, but—sadly—there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to
support that.  And because
television is a business, designed to make money, Leno is probably the safer



3)  “The Jay
Leno Show” was NOT a failure.  In
fact, it performed exactly as execs, advertisers, and local stations expected
it to perform.  Sometimes it even
beat his old “Tonight Show” ratings. 
What failed was NBC’s strategy. 
They didn’t anticipate how much “The Jay Leno Show” would damage it’s
affiliates’ news broadcasts, in turn damaging “The Tonight Show” behind them.


This may sound like splitting hairs, but it’s important to
remember: if we’re judging “The Jay Leno Show” based on how it was expected to
perform, Leno did a bang-up job. 
It wasn’t viewers—or, more importantly, advertisers—who rejected the
show; it was local TV stations.  So
the strategy was flawed from the outset, and that blame can land only one
place: NBC.



4)  While this
whole thing could turn out wonderfully for scripted television, I’m not sure
it’s great—in the long run—for broadcast television. 


The good news: axing “The Jay Leno Show” puts 5 hours of
primetime television back on the broadcast schedule.  Now, not all 5 of those hours will go to scripted
programming—some will almost definitely go to reality—but NBC has already
picked up over 20 pilots (last year it picked up 11), signaling a strong return
to the world of 10 pm dramas.


The bad news: while NBC created all this mishegas itself, it
was at least an attempt to address some of the very real problems facing
broadcast networks today.


As happy as I am that NBC has re-installed scripted
programming at 10 pm, the truth is: scripted dramas are some of the most
expensive programs out there, and broadcast scripted shows are having a tough time
competing against cheaper reality shows and cable networks.  As broadcast networks’ ratings decline,
cable ratings are soaring… and their scripted hours cost substantially less
than broadcast networks’.  (“True
,” for instance, costs a little more than $2 million per hour, about $1
million less than most broadcast hours.) 
Reality shows also cost far less… and often fare better. 


So I can’t fault NBC for at least acknowledging some of the
problems and attempting a solution… even if they fell on their face.  Eventually, as cable and broadcast
networks’ ratings even out, broadcasters will HAVE to find other business
models… and while a daily 10 p.m. talk show may not be the solution, at least
NBC was willing to do what most other networks aren’t: start thinking outside
their old-school, pre-cable, pre-Internet, pre-DVR mindset.


On the other hand, NBC eventually gave way to the complaints
of local affiliate stations, an element of broadcast television that doesn’t
exist in the world of cable or the Internet, suggesting that NBC is still
afraid to completely abandon old business models.


(Brian Steinberg has an interesting piece about this in
today’s “Ad Age.”)



So where does this leave us?…


Honestly, I have no idea.


I think it tells us, fortunately, that many people are still
more interested in quality narrative programming than talk shows (whether that
narrative programming is scripted, like “NCIS,” or reality, like “Survivor”).


But it also tells us that affiliate stations still wield a
lot of power.  Eventually,
broadcasters will have to transform their distribution system… which probably
means the end of local O&O’s and affiliates… so it’s ominous that networks
still give them so much strength.


Thus, in the short run, I think this whole Leno/Conan
debacle will provide nice dividends for scripted TV and TV viewers.


I think it’ll also end with Conan landing someplace where he
has more creative freedom and is allowed to do an even funnier, edgier show.


But in the long run, it still leaves NBC’s schedule– and brand– in shambles, and it doesn’t solve one of the problems it
attempted to solve: how to become more competitive at 10 p.m.  (Sure, you can say, “Develop better shows.”  But that’s easier said than done… especially when a failure costs millions of dollars.)  So the answer to that remains to be

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3 thoughts on “Matt's Question: What's Your Take on Leno/Conan?

  1. Matt

    Thank you greatly for the very insightful, detailed and lengthy response to my question for you. What can I say–I’m an extremely passionate person. And when I feel passionate about something, it comes out. But you do make a good argument.

    Since my previous post though, I’ve realized that there is quite possibly (and hopefully) a silver lining in all of this for Conan, his crew, and his fans, and it is something you touched on.

    His final two weeks of his show were the best episodes of his version of The Tonight Show in my opinion–I hadn’t seen him this funny, unfiltered, and edgy since The Late Night years. You’re right–this will give him a chance to create a new show where hopefully he can be more like the Conan that earned him The Tonight Show in the first place.

    This topic does lead me to want to hear your take on when and how you think rating tracking methodology will finally incorporate online viewership, iTunes purchases, and so on.

    Not that I was a Nielsen participant during Conan’s Tonight Show, but I know I watched his show online 75% of the time. I realize that total incorporation will probably depend on when networks begin earning the same amount of money that they do through traditional broadcast advertising–I guess it’s a question of when and if that day will come.

  2. Sam

    Very well argued post but I have to disagree a little. Given your answer to my previous question, i’m going to steal your structure for a rebuttle:

    1) agree, but the blame doesn’t need to be shared: from conan to jay, it’s all zucker’s fault.
    2) agree. the real question here is what affect the comcast merger had on the "better" show being given it’s old time slot, but i think either way conan’s run was limited.
    3) disgree. the jay leno show is a failure if only because it didn’t run for two years. simply because jay met expectations doesn’t mean he succeeded and i would argue that since he has been beaten by reruns of dramas, the one program his show was supposed to be particularly strong against, he failed. on the other hand, the greater failure here is the tonight show with conan (arguably due to jay, but without argument it failed).
    4) i half agree and half don’t. it will be difficult for broadcast and nbc in particular to regain the viewers lost at the 10pm slot, which is already notorious for leaking viewers who are turning off the tv to go to bed. additionally, if nbc returns to dramas, it’s back to business as usual – which means expensive shows with lackluster ratings. after jay, will anyone try anything radical in the 10pm slot? unfortunately, i don’t think so for the foreseeable future, which is disappointing as i think there’s a huge opportunity for 10pm comedy blocks. will be interesting to see the influence of affiliates in the future.

    i agree with your final point – i have no idea where this leaves us. if southland succeeds in first run on tnt, will nbc want it back? will conan go to another broadcast network or, being damned by affiliates, have to go to cable or the internet? when will nbc tap me to run their network? no idea, but the answers are only a matter of time.


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