A Bright Spot in the Leno Debacle? The Failure of NBC’s Cynical Strategy

jay leno getty A Bright Spot in the Leno Debacle? The Failure of NBCs Cynical StrategyJay Leno jammed his hands in his suit pockets. He looked up at the crowd. No matter how much your network mucks things up, Mr. Leno had learned long ago, you still have to entertain the audience. After all, jokes about Tiger Woods’ penis don’t tell themselves.

“This week, the video game publisher Electronic Arts announced they are continuing their relationship with Tiger Woods,” said Mr. Leno. “The good news for Tiger: They’re going to name their joystick after him.”

The audience chuckled. Who’s having fun? Mr. Leno turned up his palms, and shrugged. It was Friday, Jan. 8., and the lame-duck comic was taping the Jay Leno Show at his studio in Burbank. Outside, the world was buzzing over the news of NBC’s counter-reformation. The 10 p.m. thing was over, the bosses had told him. After the Olympics, Mr. Leno would be restored to 11:30 p.m. What would happen to Conan O’Brien, who since June had occupied the slot? The Internet was mad with speculation. 

It was like 1991 all over again. One desirable time slot. Two ambitious comedians. One capricious network. And another late-night clusterfuck in the making. What does NBC stand for, Mr. Leno liked to joke? Never believe your contract. He gazed at the crowd and kept riffing. He joked about the stupidity of the underwear bomber. Gay marriage in New Jersey. Lady Gaga’s partnership with Polaroid. Americans’ disinterest in soccer. A man selling a potato in the shape of a cross on eBay. Maury Povich.

Again and again, Mr. Leno bemoaned his own predicament. Along the way, he took a jab at his old rival-pal, David Letterman. “I’m sure you heard these rumors that NBC is talking about canceling our show,” he said. “You know what that means? I didn’t sleep with any of my staff, for nothing.

“To be fair,” he added, “NBC is working on a solution, they say, in which all parties will be screwed equally. It’s that certain NBC touch.”

In the days that have followed, seemingly everyone with a media column or a Twitter account has taken a turn marveling at the network’s hamfisted management of its talent. Most of the sympathy seemed to bypass Mr. Leno in favor of Mr. O’Brien:

“He did all the right things,” wrote TV critic Aaron Barnhart, “and NBC is punishing him anyway.”

“I’ve felt strongly that Conan was getting shafted,” Chevy Chase said at the TCA tour.

“If Conan doesn’t leave NBC by the end of the day,” wrote comedian Rob Corddry on Twitter, “I will eat Burbank.”

(Mr. Corddry nearly got his wish on Tuesday, when Mr. O’Brien released a letter to the people of Earth making it clear that he would not accept a move to 12:05, but stopped short of leaving the network.)

But largely lost in the furor over the apparent undermining of Mr. O’Brien and his crew was the potentially laudable shift in strategy signaled by the move. On the heels of December’s purchase of NBC by Comcast, NBC managers had wasted little time in listening to upset affiliates and scrapping The Jay Leno Show-and perhaps with it the much-bemoaned strategy of managing shows for margins (i.e., low costs) instead of high ratings, which Mr. Leno’s misadventure in prime time had come to symbolize. In a largely dispiriting age of crumbling media, NBC’s reversal of course at 10 p.m. might just be one of those rare sunny moments when a media company sets the unusual precedent of failing by aiming too low. For once, cynicism about our tastes got routed.

 

ROUGHLY 40 YEARS before NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker gave up on his network’s legacy of high-quality scripted dramas at 10 p.m. in favor of a cheapo five-nights-a-week variety show starring Mr. Leno, Mel Brooks wrote a comedy about a similarly dispirited producer. Like Mr. Zucker, Max Bialystock had seen his once-great programming fall out of favor with the public. Years of successes had been followed by years of failures. His audience was aging. Creating another beloved hit seemed like a Herculean task. “I am being sunk by a society that demands success,” says Mr. Bialystock at the start of The Producers, “when all I can offer is failure.”

Yet shortly thereafter, Mr. Bialystock and his accountant, Leo Bloom, stumble upon the kind of solution that might appeal to, say, a struggling broadcast network long mired in fourth place-that is, a way of creating a money-gushing production without having to win over an audience. “It’s absolutely amazing,” says Mr. Bloom during his epiphany. “But under the right circumstances, a producer could make more money with a flop than he could with a hit.”

Sometime around the year 2008, Mr. Zucker and his then entertainment deputy, Ben Silverman, happened upon a similar solution. They could win the 10 p.m. prime-time hour, which had for years bedeviled the network brass, not by beating the competition but by losing to them. Let everybody else try their hand at the frustrating, expensive and incredibly difficult process of creating the next great scripted drama. Those days were over. A mediocre variety show, on the other hand, was not only imminently achievable but also so cheap as to be guaranteed to be profitable. In The Producers, the winning-while-losing strategy inspired Mr. Bialystock and Mr. Bloom to create Springtime for Hitler. At NBC, it inspired Mr. Zucker and Mr. Silverman to create The Jay Leno Show. Now, four months after its debut, NBC managers appear to be saying goodbye to all that. The question remains: How far will the purge go?

 

WHILE THE LENO experiment was the most visible manifestation of NBC’s managing-for-margins strategy, the same approach was applied elsewhere in the network-most notably to NBC’s local news divisions. For years, WNBC-4, like NBC’s “must-see” prime-time lineup, had dominated the competition. But in recent years, WNBC-4 had slipped and was struggling to reverse the slide.

Rather than trying to beef up the newsroom in an effort to restore WNBC-4 to ratings and editorial prominence, in the spring of 2008 Mr. Zucker decided (à la Leno) that creating a better local news broadcast was a lost cause. WNBC-4’s ratings struggle was seen as evidence that viewers no longer wanted polished local newscasts, and as justification to blow the whole thing up. The traditional newsroom was soon scrapped for a so-called content center. Dozens of experienced (read: expensive) beat reporters were let go and replaced by a new breed of young, inexpensive content producers. The same blueprint was drawn up for stations around the country.

In Washington, D.C., NBC executives rolled out an experimental soft news show, Daily Connection, that was largely made up of repurposed news packages from a hodgepodge of NBC divisions, such as NBC Sports, Bravo and the Weather Channel. The product may never bring in big ratings, went the theory, but it would be virtually free for NBC and its stations to produce. Some longtime Peacock observers saw the show as yet another creeping manifestation of the managing-for-margins strategy-sacrificing quality local news programming in favor of the reliable profits that come from lower costs.

At the same time, back in New York, WNBC-4 scrapped its 5 p.m. newscast and replaced it with a live lifestyle show called LX New York, catering to the supposed interests of female viewers. (Shopping! Cooking! Lessons in love!) Like Leno, the show was inexpensive to produce relative to the programming it was replacing. Like Leno, it has predictably struggled to find an audience.

In recent days, many of the local NBC newshounds who were collateral damage of the winning-while-losing strategy have been watching the Leno do-over with added interest. With NBC now scrapping the managing-for-margins strategy in prime time, is it possible they’ll do the same on the local level? Could the end of prime-time Leno hold the promise of the end of LX New York, repurposed news shows and content centers?

“Everybody is dealing with the same reality, which is that the revenue has changed dramatically in broadcast TV,” said Jay DeDapper, WNBC’s former political ace, who was let go in the station overhaul. “Jeff Zucker and Jeff Immelt’s strategy was to cut the cost no matter how badly they did in the ratings so that they could make money regardless. Other companies have had different strategies. CBS in particular. They have decided that they want higher revenues through higher ratings.”

Whether the reversal will eventually trickle down to the local level remains to be seen. But Mr. DeDapper, for once, seemed hopeful about the new precedent. “It’s the first significant sign that there’s a new sheriff in town, and that Comcast has a different way of looking at this,” said Mr. DeDapper. “I don’t think they are necessarily going to come in and throw money at everything. But it’s the first signal that they also aren’t a company that believes you win by losing.”

fgillette@observer.com