That's right, kids. All it takes is a major multi-million dollar corporate executive to make one of the biggest bonehead moves in television history to at least momentarily get me out of this writing funk. Here's a question for you: let's say you somehow managed to executive produce the most profitable morning news show in television history, and that lands you a cushy little promotion to be the big cheese, in charge of all of one of the big three's entertainment programming. Funny thing though ... you have a surprise hit here and there, but for the most part, your ascendancy to that top entertainment chair (from the news division, mind you) helps your network begin and continue its slide from the #1 network overall right down to the bottom. So what happens next? Dammit ... you get promoted. And promoted again. And again. And I'm pretty sure one more time. At least four times, I believe. Welcome to the charmed life of Jeff Zucker, the President & CEO of NBC Universal.
Now comes the coup de grace: as everyone has heard by now, NBC has recently decided that since they promised Conan O'Brien The Tonight Show starting in mid-2009, and they didn't want to risk losing current late-night ratings leader Jay Leno to another network, they would make the next (il)logical choice - hand over the 10 PM (9 Central, dontcha forget) time slot every weeknight to Leno so that he may continue essentially his version of The Tonight Show under a different moniker.
You may not be reading it here first, but I'd be willing to place every single dollar I have (or these days, don't have) that this is potentially the worst move in television history. Yes, worse than CBS giving up the NFL to Fox with nary a fight. (Don't laugh ... that single move helped contribute to years of CBS in the desert and to Fox rising up high enough to make people say the "Big Four" rather than "Big Three.") Yes, significantly worse than Katie Couric to the CBS Evening News or Deborah Norville replacing Jane Pauley on Today. Far, far, FAR worse than giving the Geico cavemen a sitcom or even the disastrous (and costly) "Chevy Chase Show" on Fox.
There isn't just one reason why this is a terrible strategic move for NBC. And before anyone simply calls me a "Leno hater," the quality of Leno's show is probably the least important factor as to why by this time next year (if there's any justice) this colossal flop will lead to Zucker's demise. For the recent successes at NBC -- and there have been a few, most notably the revival of the Thursday night comedy line-up and the decision to give over Sunday night to football -- have truly been in spite of some downright stupid strategic decisions by Zucker, both in terms of his hiring of subordinate management and specific programming.
But I don't want to go too far from the main subject. Why, you ask, is this not simply a risky but potentially viable choice in the current TV landscape where costs are up, ad dollars are down, and two networks (Fox and CW) already exist without a 10 PM primetime hour? Well, I hate to agree with the pompous and pretentious Les Moonves, but when he's right, he's right. "'I will bet anybody who would like to bet that CSI: Miami on Monday night at 10 o'clock will beat Jay by a lot. Remember that. By a lot,' Moonves said Wednesday at an investor conference hosted by UBS."
I'd bet "by a lot" is an understatement.
There will actually be plenty of beneficiaries from this decision, but none of them will be NBC. The first will likely be CBS, a network that already dominates the 10 PM hour with show-after-show of police procedurals. CBS not only wins the 10 PM time-slot nightly Mondays through Thursdays -- with CSI: Miami, Without a Trace, CSI: NY, Eleventh Hour -- but all four of those series are in the Top 20 for the season. The lowest rated - Thursday's Eleventh Hour tied at 17 with another CBS 10 PMish (depending on football) show, Sunday's Cold Case -- are each averaging roughly nine million households and 12 million total viewers every week. NBC, meanwhile, not only doesn't have a 10 PM show that beats (or even really comes close) to any of the CBS series, they also don't have a 9 PM lead-in that beats any of the CBS 10 PM shows or, for that matter, CBS' even more successful 9 PM series like CSI, Criminal Minds and The Mentalist or ABC's 9 PM blockbusters such as Grey's Anatomy or Dancing With the Stars. I know NBC has claimed to not expect to actually compete, but this is tantamount to simply giving up, because what you are definitely not going to see is CBS and ABC 10 PM erosion as people flee to watch night-after-night of "Jaywalking" and "Headlines" on The Jay Leno Show. In the most recent sweeps, The Tonight Show averaged 4.9 million total viewers per night. That's less than half the audience of any of the CBS shows, and even though there are more eyes watching television at the earlier hour, I expect that number to go down, not up. If Leno manages more than four million viewers a night, I'll be shocked.
The other, and even greater beneficiaries of this move, however, will be the cable networks. A&E, AMC, USA, FX, Bravo, MTV, VH-1, TNT ... all of them have been using the 10 PM hour to premiere their original programming for years, and not just on Sunday nights. Maybe HBO was slightly too far ahead of the curve when it tried to move off of Sundays and create a second night for original programming with Big Love's second season airing on Mondays. It backfired in part because Big Love (as good as it often may be) isn't The Sopranos and simply didn't have enough of a loyal following to get people to flock to Mondays.
MTV launched "The Ten Spot" forever ago, and uses the slot almost every night of the week for new episodes of its most popular programming. One of the things that pissed off The Weinstein Company after their announcement regarding the move of Project Runway to Lifetime was they felt Bravo was ghettoizing the fifth season by moving its premiere away from the 10 PM slot -- the traditional period fo all of Bravo's new episodes -- and into the 9 PM hour. FX's The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Damages, Rescue Me and the recent Sons of Anarchy - arguably five of the best hour-long dramas produced anywhere on television all regularly premiere their episodes at 10 PM, and on weeknights. (Well, maybe not Nip/Tuck, which last season managed to jump the shark while nuking the fridge!)
10 PM has simply become more competitive, and Jeff Zucker and his ever changing programming teams -- whose most "innovative" brainstorms have been Fear Factor and Deal or No Deal -- simply haven't followed through with enough good programming to compete. To be fair, not all the NBC shows have been bad, and I would even argue, some of them have been more compelling than than the rinse-and-repeat/what's-this-one's-gimmick of the CBS crimetime procedural. But ER became something like an embarrassment of repetition and tedium years ago. Even perennial ratings success Law & Order (the show which, ironically might be most to blame for CBS' dominance) recent return hasn't bolstered NBC all that much. The original version has now been on for 17 or 18 years (!) and now stars Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson? That's a long way from Jerry Orbach, Paul Sorvino or Chris Noth, my friends. Stick a fork in 'er.
The cable networks original series development keeps getting stronger, and even in the age of TiVo, that premiere slot tends to be the most viewed. With one fewer major network option in play, more people will likely explore something like Sons of Anarchy, a Sopranos like series about a motorcycle gang in Northern California (and a very strong show by the time the season wrapped up a few weeks ago). For all those people who couldn't care less about Leno and have already started fleeing the broadcast networks, they're either going to turn of the TV early, or channel surf for something better, and they will easily find it.
Of course, NBC's big argument for this is, at least in part, cost cutting. But what does cost cutting matter if you're simultaneously going to destroy a huge chunk of your revenue. Instead of helping NBC by bringing a relative late night cash cow into primetime, NBC is making the jobs of Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon that much harder, helping David Letterman's show potentially have an easier time scheduling guests, and also drastically hurting the revenues of local affiliates and O&Os which depend on the network 10 PM lead-in to hold audiences for their late local news.
Let's start from there: the 11 PM news (10 PM central and mountain, of course), is one of the prime moneymaking periods for local affiliates. It's one of the few slots on the schedule that they own outright and don't have to share in terms of ad revenue or paying license fees (although they of course have production costs). Back when CBS was down in the dumps and trying to lure Letterman, one of Letterman's biggest concerns was that he would be handicapped by crappy late night local newscast lead-ins which in turn were already handicapped by worse 10 PM CBS programming. The affiliates, on the other hand, were begging CBS to do something about their horrible late-night programming -- which many didn't even carry because "Crimetime After Primetime" just wasn't doing it for them -- in part to help draw more audience to the local news because of the potential for a successful lead-out. So when Leno starts attracting three-to-four million a night and giving local affiliates such a crappy lead-in, the shit will continue to flow downhill. It will hurt the local affiliates, but it will also potentially hurt the new Tonight with Conan which will in turn hurt the new Late Night with Fallon, and maybe even that crappy waste of airtime with Carson.
Even more damaging, however, is the fact that either Leno or O'Brien will be cannibalizing each other's guests. Two talk shows on essentially the same lot, on the same network? The winner is ... David Letterman, who will not have a virtually identical format show airing both before and after him on his own network. Additionally, while Letterman will still only have one late-night talk show based in New York with which to compete for guests, there will now be five in LA. The competition for guests will become that much more difficult, but more importantly, the pool of interesting guests will be spread even more thin. And when a big movie is opening, who's going to get Will Smith or Julia Roberts on their night-before/Thursday episode? Leno? O'Brien? Definitely not both. Definitely not both the same week.
Then there's the next thing: what happens when this doesn't work? NBC isn't going to be able to cry foul. They're not going to have replacement programming, aside from maybe adding another night of Deal or No Deal and pushing Law & Order back to 10. They either won't have enough good development in the pipeline to have enough replacement shows ready for air, or they'll rush a bunch of seriously cheap-to-produce crap through production just in case. But with all the hoops NBC has jumped through to keep Leno on their team anyway, at what point does saving face stop overtaking revenue losses.
And lastly ... what in the name of anything anyone considers holy made Zucker (and I keep blaming him directly because from everything I've read, this was his decision, his deal, his wooing, his fear of ABC et al.) think that a prime-time talk show (let alone a variety show if they went in that direction which they indicate they won't) is a good idea? Was it the phenomenal lack of success at trying to reignite the Variety show format with Rosie O'Donnell just weeks ago? Was it the reality the Leno attracts the oldest audience in late night and so maybe some Boomers memories of Ed Sullivan, Carol Burnett, Laugh In and Sonny & Cher might somehow pull them in to watch before the late news, at least through their retirements? Don't all the bigwhigs in programming at NBC know that if the audience isn't voting for a winner these days, the variety format is a snoozer?
So lets go back to the beginning of all of this: Jeff Zucker. And in doing so, let's also address one of my favorite subjects: the film Network. In Network, we see the beginning of the eventual real-world trend of news becoming entertainment. Faye Dunaway's Diana Christensen is an entertainment exec who wants to take over the news divison. Of course, while this move utterly destroys any journalistic integrity, it's an enormous popular success, and Paddy Chayefsky's vision in 1975 wound up predicting the trends and state of modern media ever since even though he had no knowledge of the coming cable universe, the internet, or actual gigantic corporate consolidation.
At NBC, they've gone in exactly the opposite direction. Years ago, after being the most innovative network in the business under the leadership of the late Brandon Tartikoff, the network was handed over to a guy from the news division; a guy who ran a morning show that was part news and part fluff. And as he has risen through the ranks, the network has fallen behind CBS, been passed by a revitalized ABC and often finds itself in virtual ties with (if not fourth place behind) the still-smallest-member of the big four, Fox.
And let's not forget that Zucker got NBC into this fix a few years ago by, as usual, dealing with the present dilemma without any real concept of how it will affect him and his business down the line. It was Zucker who decided that keeping Conan from jumping ship a few years ago was important enough to hand him the keys to The Tonight Show in 2009, even though there was no reason to believe Leno would have any interest in retiring. Why did they not try to figure out a deal for Leno back then? Or at least have a more thorough consultation to figure out how to make everyone happy -- maybe an impossibility? Maybe. But this is a sham. This is giving up. This is admitting that you can't compete and are too lazy to compete. This is cutting nearly a third of your weekly primetime hours for a show with a much smaller audience that not only will bring smaller ratings but also a much smaller following in terms of people who might try to catch various episodes by other means: iTunes download, online streaming, DVD sales, etc. Because nobody is going to be looking to make sure they catch every night of The Jay Leno Show.
Actually, for me personally, this is a great move. I'm trying really hard to cut back on my television; not TiVo quite as much, you know. Thanks to Zucker and NBC, I can write-off NBC at 10 PM every night and not have to think about whether or not I want to follow Life or give My Own Worst Enemy a shot. So really, thanks Zucker. Your dumbass move will, in fact, improve my life ever-so-slightly. I just feel bad for the grand ol' National Broadcasting Corportion. But who knows; if you do manage to completely destroy the network, maybe that's what it will take to get you that top job at GE. One can only hope. Just don't go asking for a bailout; you got yourself into this mess.