Lessons From Jay, Coco, and Zucker

January 27, 2010
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Jay Leno’s 10/9pm show had horrible ratings. As a Leno anti-fan, it gives me pleasure to type that. It gives me no real pleasure or displeasure to type the next line, though: Conan’s ratings were also pretty bad. And then a funny thing happened (the funniness sure wasn’t in Leno’s show): both shows experienced ratings spikes when cancelled because of the public airing of all the dirty laundry.

I pose that if we want to understand what went wrong with the Jay Leno Show and what NBC might learn from it, we shouldn’t just ask what Leno’s failure says – we should also ask what the combination of the failure and the momentary ratings spike says.

As Amanda Lotz has already pointed out here at Antenna, at least we could say that NBC tried something. But that something showed itself incapable of beating even poor and poorly advertised new shows that have since been cancelled and forgotten. Jeffrey Jones also noted here at Antenna that NBC just didn’t get the art of programming different dayparts.

What interests me, though, is how many people decided to watch Leno or O’Brien or Letterman or Kimmel when it finally seemed to matter. There was an event, and with it, a reason to watch. And events have done well this year – V is really quite bad indeed, and yet it premiered to great numbers. AMC’s The Prisoner notched a fairly admirable sized audience. Millions will watch an event on Feb 7 when the Colts battle the Saints, even though many won’t care about football. Jersey Shore seems to have been an event, too, as all manner of reality shows have continued to do well by being events with yet more events (tribal council, the merger, Hollywood week, the trip to Japan, etc.) built into them.

I’m not sure how much I believe this next idea, but I’m trying it on for size, so tell me if I should put it back on the rack: perhaps we’ve reached a point of televisual ubiquity and of the medium’s general “wallpaperness,” that many viewers yearn for and/or need some kind of external reason to tune in. Sure, a lot of shows are still getting great audiences, so the day of reckoning is hardly upon series television, nor do I believe it’s coming. But if NBC wants to shake things up a bit, how about some more events (other than the Olympics)? How about the British system of shorter shows? Greenlight small projects, and if some do very well, sure, make ‘em into longer series. But otherwise, become the channel with new stuff, the channel that’s got a new show on tonight (did you hear about it?), not yet another rerun of a tired procedural that nobody really cares that much about anyways, or night 5648 of Jay’s late night reign of terror.

Maybe it’s an awful idea. But it’s certainly no worse than the idea of giving Jay Leno a third of prime time.


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2 Responses to “ Lessons From Jay, Coco, and Zucker ”

  1. Myles McNutt on January 27, 2010 at 10:25 AM

    It’s certainly not an awful idea, to start with.

    What fascinates me about Leno, and to be honest most of Late Night, is that it is wallpaper which masquerades as event programming. While you observe, quite rightly, that the recent surge in interest came from external forces, there is an expectation that this is always the case: Late Night does better during elections, and episodes with bigger celebrities (See: the parade of New Moon stars who raised late night ratings across the board) would result in a surge of sorts. However, more often than not, they are just fancy wallpaper: NBC tried to claim that Leno would be so aggressively topical and spontaneous that no one would ever dare DVR the show out of fear of missing something “in the moment” and regretting it forever, but that just isn’t how we view Late Night programming, especially not when it’s actually in Primetime (where, I would argue, that particular brand of wallpaper is too static, despite being more dynamic than some procedurals).

    However, I resist “event” programming as a whole because I find it’s being done independent of narrative interest or focus. 24 has made a habit out of launching with its four-hour, two-night event, but when The Prisoner (which, speaking of truly awful) chose to air all six episodes over three nights (which I wrote about here) it felt like they were undercutting the potential for viewers to become engaged in the week-long theorizing the show seemed to be asking for. I just worry that the desire for something which “stands out” will be done independent of the development process (which, for better or for worse, is unlikely to change anytime soon), and shows will be forced into that particular mode if they are of questionable quality, effectively making event programming a more pleasant way of burning off unwanted series.

    Although, to be fair to NBC, they do have Day One, a post-apocalyptic type TV movie, airing soon as a back-door pilot…although a back-door pilot that was cut down from a four-hour miniseries which had already been cut down from a six-episode short-order series. So consider my skeptical.

  2. Derek Kompare on January 28, 2010 at 9:17 AM

    TV should come in many flavors. Some of them are staid, some of them are more intriguing, and some of them are singular. Too often, however, networks attempt to trick us, trying to sell vanilla as if it’s pomegranate creme. Such was clearly the case with The Jay Leno Show. Other times, they’ll line up several indistinguishable flavors and claim they’re all different (hello, CBS crime dramas).

    The trick is always to provide the right flavors in the right proportions. Sometimes we want comfort food, everyday TV, sometimes we want to be intrigued for weeks or years, sometimes we want to be dazzled for a couple of entertaining hours. The lineup on any channel can’t solely be only one of these. That said, it seems the dominant tack these days (in prime-time at least, on both broadcast and cable) is to give almost everything the relative sheen of “event.” This is particularly the case with boutique dramas, whereby every new season is touted like The Television Event of the Year, and every new episode within it as Can’t Miss. Competitive reality shows, starting with Survivor back in 2000, function with a similar pull. You’ve gotta see this! the hype screams for weeks and months. This wasn’t the case (or at least, not nearly as pervasive and standardized as it is now) a decade or so back.

    In looking over the list of shows I’ve had recommended to me, as well as others I’m intrigued by, and still others I already follow, I realize I’m oversaturated in such “event” TV. I could use a bit more vanilla, to be honest (which is one reason I adore Modern Family this season). I could also go for smaller chunks, as they do in the UK, as Jonathan suggests. I’d rather commit to 6 or 13 episodes of something rather than 24, 60, or 100 or more. I do think this model will get more traction in this country, though not a whole lot more (the economics of American TV are still tilted in favor of longer seasons).