Conan, Leno, and NBC. This is the entertainment debacle spotlighted in the news. No Lindsey Lohan weight loss watch or Disney teen actress sex scandal can bump this story off the “lite” news cycle. It has been examined from every angle – the straight forward news angle, the industry angle, and the fan angle- and whenever something becomes the subject of this much analysis it invariably eventually falls into sports metaphors, a nice, concise way to explain the most complicated situations in terms of something a good number of Americans know better than the constitution or basic nutrition.
NBC is like the Detroit Lions
NBC has fallen into last place among the major networks overall. The last round of television ratings from Neilson, released on Zap 2 It, has just three NBC programs in the Top 20. Three is a terrible number and that situation gets even worse when it is revealed that the three programs were all NFL Playoffs related. The television season numbers are just as bad, with football carrying the load (what happens once football is over?).
The Detroit Lions are just as bad in sports terms. They are in the last place in the NFC North and only have a glimmer of hope. Football experts are as fond of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, just as television critics are of the NBC Thursday night comedy lineup, but this high praise is not going to pull this network out of the gutter any time soon.
To make things worse, the Jay Leno experiment has failed at the 10:00 p.m. spot, failing to beat the CBS CSI dramas. This is a blow as damaging as a busted first round draft pick in the NFL. Now the network has to rebuild and re-strategize. They have to find five more hours of television to put on the air after the 2010 Winter Olympics (which has reportedly already lost $200 million).
Unfortunately, there is no draft to help this network out. Sure Jeff Zucker can try and recruit some talented television writers and show writers, but who wants to work for a guy worried more about the bottom line than the quality of the content? This network has almost no hope of ending their last place finishes and seems to be well on its way to another 0-16 season.
Jeff Zucker is like a General Manager with no foresight
Many people know Jeff Zucker as the President and CEO of NBC Universal, but not many people know his background. He began as a researcher for NBC in 1986 and became a field producer for the Today Show in 1989. By 1992 he was an executive producer of the Today Show, which dominated early morning news programming during his tenure. In 2000, after the success with the Today Show, he became the NBC Entertainment president.
This is where Zucker’s troubles begin. The Wikipedia page for Jeff Zucker hails him as a hero, keeping NBC “ahead of the pack.” There is a little box above that section noting that this section’s neutrality has been disputed. The reason is simple. He brought in reality television, kept shows like Friends going into the tenth season, and ordered more versions of Law and Order, an already hit franchise.
These moves kept NBC on top of the ratings until 2003, when the bottom of the boat fell out. He kept old television franchises and replaced scripted shows with cheaper reality shows. Once the franchises ended and the reality shows lost there appeal the network had nothing ready in the wings to fill the gap. There were holes throughout the lineup and the solution was “supersized” hit shows that extended the 30-minute format.
The network, as a team, did not have the talent and was asking too much of the stars they did have. Suddenly, the network that once dominated the ratings and the 18-49 market fell to last place once Zucker was promoted to President of NBC Entertainment’s News & Cable Group in 2003.
From there Zucker became the President of NBC Television Group in 2004, and then the CEO of NBC in 2005. His last promotion elevated him to the position of President and CEO of NBC Universal in 2007. All these promotions came as the network continued to struggle in the ratings. He has continued to try and find cheap ways to compete, but has failed to do so. His Jay Leno experiment is perhaps the last greatest example of this failure.
I’d compare him to the New York Yankees, but they manage to continue winning while sacrificing the farm system. At this time I am at a loss for a comparable GM or team. Most teams that go for broke and fail try and start over by throwing money at the problem. They try and win again since the best way to make money is to put a good team on the floor and win. The best example here would have to a team that just came out of a great era and then suddenly tried to clean house to lower the bottom line to sell the team.
The question is who would want to buy a team that just sacrificed years of being competitive for short term business? The answer is Comcast.
Conan O’Brien is like the San Diego Chargers
Let us travel back to February 2009. Fans of the Late Night with Conan O’Brien were lamenting that Conan’s move to the Tonight Show would be an end to the kind of comedy that made him so popular. They, or we since I am a Conan fan, were afraid that he would stop taking the risks that made us enjoy his show so much.
For those who did not watch Conan, he took risks often. Random characters and skits would succeed, like the masturbating bear or “In the Year 2000”, but many bits have failed and have since been completely forgotten. His show and his brand of late night comedy were basically hit or miss, much like the San Diego Chargers down field passing offense.
Once he moved to the Tonight Show we saw some skits and he took a few chances, but he dialed his comedy down and became something that was not himself. The fear is that his style would not play with Middle America, which is actually a weird way of saying that his comedy would not play with Middle-Aged America. Once he began playing more conservatively his ratings dropped. He, like the Chargers, struggles to play conservatively. It is simply not his game.
Now, as he plays out his last few shows with the Tonight Show, he has returned to his manic, self deprecating comedic form. Conan is willing to try just about any bit he thinks is funny. This return to his comedy roots and the attention fueled by controversy has given him a huge 50-percent ratings bump, according to MSNBC.
The point is that Conan is like the Chargers. They take big chances down the field and are out their best when they play this way. The Chargers recently lost in the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs, and this may be an unintended apt description of the Conan in late night prime time. Perhaps he can never win this way. Perhaps he is not going to be first in the ratings at the 11:35 p.m. ET time spot because he cannot play a conservative game.
Then again, the Indianapolis Colts played the same way offensively and they won the Super Bowl in 2005. (In this case the difference is the defense and in this contrived metaphor Conan’s lawyers are like the Chargers defense, leaving a huge hole in the contract that did not guarantee the time spot and giving NBC an in to take his show away from him.).
Jay Leno’s Tonight Show is like the San Antonio Spurs
I am not a fan of Jay Leno, but I cannot argue with his success. This makes him like the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs consistently put together winning teams that have won at least 60 percent of their regular season games since the 1997-98 season.
The biggest difference between these two teams is that Leno’s version of winning is dominating the television ratings as host of the Tonight Show. The Spurs remain one of the least watched NBA champions of the 21st century.
There is no other way this needs to be spun or explained. He remained at the top of the late night ratings game for nearly all of his 17 years as host of the Tonight Show. This means the show remained consistent in its purpose- ratings- no matter what criticism or praise the show received from a comedy perspective.
The Tonight Show Conflict is like…
The whole conflict is like any major sports strike or salary cap disaster. It has been mishandled by every side and the result is disaster. The ultimate loser will be the network, which has lost so much prestige I would put it on par with Fox in the 1990s.
The only good news is that there is a chance the network can come back. MLB baseball came back from the baseball strike in 1994. That comeback was fueled by something as dastardly as steroids though. The NBA and the NHL have failed to come back as strong as MLB, and this could very well be the reality for a network trying to come back in the competitive age of Cable, the Internet, Tivo, and Hulu.