The 7 Mistakes by NBC

NBC_logoAs a child, I grew up in awe of anyone who worked in “network TV”. Not just on-air talent but business people as well. I grew up thinking they were thought leaders, creative geniuses, and brilliant business people. Also, for reasons that are not even clear to me, I grew up with a particular affinity to NBC (maybe I just liked ice skating in Rockefeller Center). So forgetting for the moment that the network TV business has radically changed, even from an outsider’s perspective, the decisions NBC are making (and are continuing to make) in their prime time and late night programming show incredible lack of foresight and strategic thinking. So much for “brilliant business people”. I can only wonder what the management at NBC was thinking in their Leno/Conan fiasco. It appears they have the unique ability to bad decisions after bad ones, compounding their problems.

Just to review, several years ago NBC decided Leno, despite his overall ratings strength, was getting long in the tooth, and didn’t appeal as much to the coveted younger viewers (PS: check out Strum news article 55-64: The lost demo for an alternative point of view). So with that analysis, and perhaps even the right perspective, they set a firm date for 2009, 5 years in advance,  when Leno would leave and Conan O’Brien would replace him as host of the Tonight Show.

Mistake #1   Never have a long term “head coach-in-waiting”. Ask Bobby Bowden. It creates an unnatural lame duck-like dynamic.

Be that as it may, it might have been a wise decision to replace Leno. But hold on… concerned that Leno would emerge elsewhere and harm them, combined with their ineffectiveness in successfully programming 3 hours of prime-time each night, the wise men and ladies of NBC decided, “Why don’t we keep Jay, pay him a boatload of money & move him to 10pm (EST) on Monday-Friday. Leno will be cheap to produce, and will be DVR proof (e.g. few will care to record it), and though ratings may decline we will nonetheless make a few more sheckles”. 

They were correct—it was cheap to produce, virtually no one records it for later playback (a downside, not strength) and ratings did decline. Maybe they even made a few extra short term bucks.

Mistake #2 They got exactly what they intended

But hold on–the NBC affiliates throughout the U.S., coerced into carrying Leno at 10pm (EST), saw their late news local news ratings drop disproportionately. Why?  Maybe because the 10pm lead-in (Leno) was really weak?

Mistake #3 Ignore your affiliates at your own peril

 At the same time, Conan O’Brien, a real talent, but lacking the Middle America/older appeal of Leno did not achieve Leno-like ratings in his new role as host of the Tonight Show (though he indeed didn’t do as badly in the “younger” demos he appeals to). No doubt airing Leno at 10pm didn’t help him either.  And remember the impact of their decisions in eroding the late news ratings of their affiliates (reportedly an average of 14%) provided a weaker lead-in to Conan, a programming “double whammy”. In any event, Letterman/CBS now trumps the Tonight Show ratings. OK, we got it, NBC decides—we’ll move Leno back to 11:35 solving our 10pm problem, strengthening our late night ratings and push Conan further back.

Mistake #4 Assuming Conan would accept this.

Conan O’Brien understandably rejected this scenario, hence his reported $32.5MM buyout, and though Conan was screwed by NBC, shed no tears for sitting on the beach until September and collecting mega bucks for doing so. Leno, now tarnished “damaged goods”, will be back at the Tonight Show in March after the Winter Olympics.

So what do we do at 10pm?

Mistake #5 NBC now scrambles to create 5 hours of prime time programming for the 10-11 hour Monday-Friday, having admitted it lacked the confidence (and perhaps the ability) to do so just a year ago.

However, the ghosts of “mistakes future”, mistakes # 6 and #7, are right around the corner, I suggest.

Mistake #6 Ratings for the hurry-up makeshift, 10pm NBC programming will be weak and affiliates will continue to have a weak lead-in. 

They will continue to be in revolt because NBC by virtue of its knee jerk decisions dramatically eroded lead-in viewing, and hence their local news ratings, and therefore local station revenue.

Mistake #7  Having allowed viewers to develop new late night viewing habits, CBS/Letterman will draw more viewers than NBC/Leno, where the reverse had been true previously.

I guess NBC thinks that we all believed that Bobby Ewing was in the shower and wasn’t dead after all (Yes I’m showing my age—OK, Dallas was on CBS, I know that). But we now all know Leno was a failure at 10. Maybe NBC was right about one thing—Leno’s style may be tired and their plan to replace him on the Tonight Show was indeed the right initial decision. If they were, then ultimately the viewers of the “new” Leno/Tonight will be fewer in #s and older than before they had pushed him out of the Tonight Show in 2009. Even if Leno no longer delivers higher ratings than Letterman, NBC will no doubt proclaim “victory” if their late night ratings improve from Conan’s sabotaged Tonight Show. Some victory.

I may not be a programming genius but it’s clear that NBC is making a series of weak short term decisions, with little forethought to the domino effect of those decisions. Then they cross their fingers and hope that it all works out. How’s that working so far?

PS: I still like Rockefeller Center.

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  1. Ahmed Toyama says:

    I enjoyed your posts, the fact that your site is a little bit different makes it so very interesting, I get fed up of seeing the same old boring recycled stuff all of the time.

  2. Lonny Strum says:

    Thanks Ahmed. Appreciate your thoughts. I am trying hard to keep it different and fresh. Your feedback is appreciated.

  3. Michele says:

    Hey Lonny,
    Completely agree with your opinion on the mistakes NBC has made related to Jay Leno. I would be interested in a follow up article that expands to the dire straights NBC is obviously finding itself smack dab in the middle of with respect to other day part programming failures, media coverage that just doesn’t compete, maybe a look into the impact of business management heads? This story has legs.

  4. Lonny Strum says:

    Thanks Michele. I was thinking about a follow up later this month just before Leno returns. NBC is clearly mismanging its brand. Soon it will be Comcast’s worry. Appreciate your ideas.

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