Beyond I Told You So: NBC Could Have Saved Network TV

January 10, 2010
By | 12 Comments

So what was nearly universally predicted has come to pass. NBC’s experiment stripping The Jay Leno Show will end, mercifully, in February, although many particulars regarding the primetime and late-night schedule remain to be worked out. While almost anyone not working for NBC might take this as a moment to say “I told you so,” I say, well yes, but also take the perhaps surprising move of giving NBC some credit for trying something.

NBC deserves an A- for taking a bold move with The Jay Leno Show, although a D for deployment. Any viewer or industry worker who thinks network television will continue without such bold changes is painfully disillusioned. I’m not typically a fan of prognosticating, but I bet by the decade’s end, at least one network will strip some part of prime time.

Where did NBC go wrong—can we count the ways? This was the wrong time frame and the wrong talent. By giving up 10:00, the experiment became a particularly contentious point for affiliates that depend on a strong 10:00 to carry audiences into news, both late-night and in the morning. Secondly, NBC gave up the opportunity for any kind of “grown-up” series programming because everything needed scheduled before 10:00. In addition to offering little of interest to a good chunk of the audience, this is problematic because of the substantial revenues for the conglomerate owning the network that come from selling programming—some of which is for a 10:00 maturity level—and NBC would soon have little to sell. Sadly, NBC’s one recent glimmer of programming potential, its effective re-invention of the cop franchise in Southland, had to be shipped off to TNT given the lack of room on a schedule bloated with Leno.

The other mistake was not entirely realizing that this is not the television business of 1992. No one wanted to repeat the mess of the Carson/Leno/Letterman saga, and executives were reasonably worried about Leno going elsewhere, but in television of the late 2000s, would this have even mattered. Would a substantial audience really have followed, especially after a period of transition? The truth is, the breadth of audience Leno’s comedy aims for is an artifact of another era. A few might have followed to another network, but probably not enough to make a big difference. Sure, no one wants to be the one that Leno get away, but it isn’t hard to see how radically the comedic landscape of US has become focused on narrow tastes.

We’ll see what happens next; programming costs have to be decreased, but the complexity of network economics—with cost savings coming cheap programming, yet revenue coming from programming that can be sold in subsequent markets and from affiliates—there is no single solution or magic bullet. The Jay Leno Show didn’t save US broadcast networks, but it will take something that bold to do so.


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12 Responses to “ Beyond I Told You So: NBC Could Have Saved Network TV ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on January 10, 2010 at 7:56 PM

    I think many of the networks have already been inching towards another strategy that isn’t necessarily “bold” but is working, namely big reality franchises that can take way more than a single hour a week. After all, while Jay Leno’s been losing NBC viewers, one of their few bright spots (outside Sunday Night Football) has been The Biggest Loser, which grew to 2 hours, and will soon see a spinoff. Fox, meanwhile, can fill seemingly half of their schedule with American Idol. And ABC has Dancing with the Stars on two nights a week. Maybe that’s part of the solution that will actually work?

    • Erin Copple Smith on January 11, 2010 at 11:19 AM

      I can’t believe this hasn’t occurred to me! This is a great point, Jonathan. I think you’re absolutely right–semi-stripping reality franchises does seem to be the workable solution to this issue, at least at the moment.

      In fact, this reminds me of ABC’s failed experiment in airing Who Wants to be a Millionaire? so frequently across the prime time schedule several years ago. Audiences got burned out, and everyone said “I told you so!” to ABC…and yet…the tactic seems to be working now. It gives Amanda’s central point about avoiding “I told you so” in favor of “Congrats on making a move” some historical context that makes the argument particularly persuasive!

  2. Kyra Glass on January 11, 2010 at 12:17 AM

    I think there are great merits to both Amanda’s posts and Jonathan’s response but find myself worrying about the “Southland” issue that Amanda has pointed out. I am all for the reinvention of the network schedule but worry about banishing more mature programming to cable channels in order to schedule less expensive programming in there slots. Those of us who grew up on cable are not network loyal and will follow a good show happily to its cable affiliate. While American Idol and The Biggest Loser, as Jonathan points out, gets a lot of viewers for much less cost, reality shows of this kind as a strategy may burn out. I wonder if we will see a replay of the 70s and the networks will decide that while they have been racking up big numbers overall with reality programming they are losing the audience they and their advertisers really want to the cable networks. (Especially in an economy when certain audiences have drastically more disposal income then others). I suppose NBC might not care as long as it is one of their own cable channels that features the show, and they profit from the DVDs, but they should care if part of saving a network is the goal of saving it as a brand. While Leno was definitely not the right symbol for NBC as a brand anymore, finding out what is may prove as important as finding out how to strip primetime effectively.

  3. Jeffrey Jones on January 11, 2010 at 9:16 AM

    I agree with Amanda (bold move, weak deployment), but the one word missing is “affiliates.” I like Amanda’s impetus to ask, “what does 2020 look like,” and I can’t help wondering what the word “affiliate” means in 2020. Because for better or worse, affiliates still had a big role in all this.

    • Jeffrey Jones on January 11, 2010 at 11:46 AM

      Oops. I see the word affiliate now. Well, again, what do affiliates mean in 2020? Something without the power they have in 2010.

    • Jonathan Nichols-Pethick on January 13, 2010 at 7:51 AM

      I think the answer to the question that Jeffrey raises about what “affiliate” will mean in 2020 is a supremely important one. It’s surprising to me that the affiliates are still able to wield such power as they did in the Leno case. With the appointment of Stuart Benjamin as the FCC’s “Scholar in Residence” and the recent notice penned by the FCC — National Broadband Plan Public Notice #26 — as well as the waning stock value of companies like Nexstar and Belo, the growing trend of private equity firms taking over ownership grops, etc., it seems like a perfect storm is brewing that will eventually render the affiliates virtually powerless. Benjamin has made the “modest proposal” that broadcasting may not be the best use of the spectrum (see his “Roasting the Pig to Burn Down the House: A Modest Proposal,” published in the Journal on Telecommunications & High Technology almost exactly a year ago). For their part the FCC put forward the notice mentioned above in order to ask tough questions about the best use of the broadcast spectrum. The notice is serious enough to have prompted a response from the NAB along with the Association for Maximum Service Television, and spawned an ad campaign to “Save Free Antenna Television.” It seems to me that the best hope for the affiliates is if the NAB can convince the public and Congress that they would be giving away (or rather selling off) one of the most valuable public resources, and that it would be political suicide to do so. The question is: do people even care? What would make them care?

  4. Erin Copple Smith on January 11, 2010 at 11:16 AM

    I had a discussion about this with my uncle over New Years, and said essentially the same thing: had this worked, it would have been huge and everyone would have been marveling at NBC’s courage at taking such a bold step that paid off.

    Amanda, I agree completely that big changes are what will define the next 10 years in terms of programming, and someone had to go first. Yes, in this case, the gamble resulted in a big loss (your point about “grown-up” programming is very apt–my husband just said the other day, “SVU just isn’t a 9pm show”), but they took a risk.

    Excellent post addressing lots of the things that have been on my mind, too.

    • Jonathan Gray on January 11, 2010 at 5:19 PM

      “Everyone would have been marveling,” Erin? Not me 🙂
      If they pulled it off, I would be saddened that by giving up on an hour of prime time and got rewarded for it.

      Indeed, I’m not that impressed with taking risks per se — educated, intelligent risks are what’s needed. I could jump off a 40 storey building and everyone would be impressed if I live, but I wouldn’t live, so the risk would just be dumb. I think NBC was dumb here, and they got punished. That punishment will continue to dole itself out as they now have to fill an hour of prime time last minute. So, yeah, they tried something, but I’m sure between the four of us commenting on this, we could have come up with something smarter if they wanted a smart risk. (or so says the armchair Zucker)

      • Erin Copple Smith on January 11, 2010 at 7:53 PM

        Mightn’t you still have been “marveling”–even if it’s the same kind of marveling that makes you wonder why NCIS is the most-watched show on TV? We would have been surprised, sure, and yes, maybe even saddened at losing an hour of prime-time scripted programming every night of the week. But I think we would have been amazed that they took a gamble that paid off.

        (Mind you, I agree that the risk they took was neither educated nor intelligent. I wanted to say it wasn’t calculated, either, but that seems to be the only thing it was–they were calculating how much money they could save, and as we all know, success with audiences is not just about finances. And I certainly agree that the Antenna hive mind could have come up with a better gamble.)

        • Jonathan Gray on January 11, 2010 at 11:41 PM

          Well, I wouldn’t have found it marvelous, I wouldn’t have thought Zucker a marvel, and I’d prefer to read Marvel comics than watch Leno, BUT yeah, I guess I’d be marveling, if only in a wtf kind of way 😉

          • Erin Copple Smith on January 12, 2010 at 11:28 AM

            Ha! Then I’ll concede the point.

  5. Myles McNutt on January 12, 2010 at 12:25 PM

    I think NBC had options in terms of trying to salvage the situation in Primetime without throwing Leno back to Late Night and essentially saying “Our bad!” I argued in a post last week that they could have kept Leno on at 10 on Tuesdays and Thursdays (where he has his strongest lead-ins) and simply connected his content more carefully to those lead-ins: feature talent from those shows (previewing the At-Home challenge on Biggest Loser, featuring comedians from Office/Parks/Community/30 Rock) in a way to try to keep viewers watching.

    The problem with Leno’s show creatively is that it was his late night show transplanted into prime-time: while turning the hour into shameless self-promotion of the rest of the network’s programming might seem, well, shameless, if they’re actually going to try something different that could save the Network TV model there are ways which go beyond financial concerns to engage with creative opportunities present in programs like Leno’s.

    I’m not saying I wouldn’t prefer all sorts of new drama (or even, as Jonathan notes, more reality), but the Leno Primetime experiment could have been tinkered with much more with potential success were it not for a combination of bad press, NBC’s strange desire for Jay Leno to be 100% happy at all times, and the legitimate (although, as Jeffrey argues, potentially in transition) power of affiliates to influence these decisions.

    (You can find that whole Leno post here: