Lessons from NBC

Chris Byrnes – ByrnesMedia

The NBC experiment with the 10pm timeslot which started on 14 September last year looks to be finally coming to a close, as Jay Leno returns to the Tonight Show on the first of March.  Jay made his first appearance on The Tonight Show in 1977 and eventually became Johnny Carson`s permanent guest host until he was given the job in 1992 after Johnny retired. Then Letterman and Leno battled it out for the late night ratings crown, with Jay finally beating Letterman in 1996 with his interview with Hugh Grant over his encounter with a prostitute. In 2004 Jay announced he would step down and pass the reigns to Conan O`Brien. Perhaps Jay had second thoughts as 2009 approached and the end result was a new show at 10pm. I do not wish to add fuel to the fire, but instead offer some thoughts on lessons we might learn from this doomed experiment. 

Don`t put a square peg in a round hole: There are those who feel history will confirm that Jay did not want to give up his late night time slot, but NBC had a contract with Conan who perhaps forced their hand. So NBC created a position for Jay and, in doing so, weakened their program line-up, impacted their revenue and allowed the competition to counter program against them with strong new shows such as The Good Wife. Lesson: Make sure your motives for making such an important decision are sound. Find out what a cross section of the key audience demos might think about such a move.

There is no such thing as bad publicity: Conan negotiated a great exit deal which saw him walk away with around $45 million. Conan put about 70% in his pocket with the remainder split with his 120 writers and staff. Look for Conan to pop up on another network as soon as September of this year. By the way, all his trash-talking about him losing his show led to additional media attention which propelled him to first place in the late-night war with Letterman. Lesson: There really is no such thing as bad publicity!

You cannot control what the other guy does:  This holds true in almost any industry but especially in the media where what we do is often very transparent. Lesson: Keep a watchful eye on your competition but don’t let them spook you. As they say, lead, follow or get out of the way!

Do what you do best: Jay knows his strengths which are as a talk show host and comedian, rather than a sitcom guy or a news anchor. He is one of the hardest working guys on television and I think he set about trying to find a way to get back on television. Yes, sometimes we have to adapt and change, but at the end of the day you need to do what you love the best. Those people who work hard to develop those skills and refine them can often be the difference between ordinary and exceptional. Lesson: Find something you are passionate about and stick to it. However, there are those in comedy and entertainment roles that stay too long.  You’ve got to know when it’s time to move on.  Most major talents like Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien are surrounded by great writing teams, but they are not always given good advice by network management.  Most talents at that level are very set in their ways and will not change their approach or try new things.

Never burn bridges: Jay was classy throughout the process as NBC was deciding what to do as 2009 progressed and they had a contract that stated Conan would take over the show sometime in that year. Rumours started circulating that one of the other networks was interested in Jay and he may have shown up on ABC or even Fox. In the end, he decided to stay loyal to NBC because this was the company that helped him build his franchise and career. Lesson: Be loyal to those who are loyal to you and never burn a bridge no matter how tempting it might be. You never know when the guy who fired you might call you offering you another job.

Know the Importance of Branding:  Jay Leno knew that he had established himself as a brand, which did not happen overnight. Jay worked 300 plus nights fine tuning his craft in comedy clubs all over North America. His work ethic, more than his comedic ability may have been his secret to success. Most Sunday nights, Jay can be found at The Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach and that’s his spending money for the week. Lesson: Keep trying and keep at it. Eventually you’ll be successful. It also helps to have a good manager and someone who can be objective and direct. 

Advertising Age recently wrote an interesting article dissecting the Jay Leno effect on NBC and viewership, ratings and advertising. For example, “A 30-second spot in “Jay Leno” costs between an average of $48,803 (Friday nights) and $65,678 (Tuesday nights. In contrast, NBC was able to secure ad prices of between $78,000 (for “Lipstick Jungle”) and $146,679 for programs that aired in its 10 p.m. slot Monday through Friday in the 2008-2009 programming season.”  Simon Cumenco, a media writer for AD Age, also wrote an article about the ten things we could learn from this, which is equally as applicable to any brand or business. I have listed his comments below and added some comments myself

10. In a morphing media marketplace, track record means nothing: Jay did `The Tonight Show’ for 17 years which is an impressive run. But clearly that did not mean much when it came down to dollars and cents as far as NBC was concerned.

9. Longevity is not the same as brand loyalty: There is a big difference between the two. Being in a job for a long time does not make you successful.

8. Cutting back on quality, even in a recession, can be brand suicide: NBC talked rather publicly about the lower cost of producing a one man show and putting it at 10pm, which would be a lot less expensive than purchasing a drama show which is what typically goes at that time of night. However, the writing was not as good and many of the bits were not well thought out and fell flat. Viewers will not consume a sub-standard product, especially when there are strong alternatives on other channels. Lesson: You have to invest in the product and continue to fine tune it.

7. It’s dangerous to pretend your brand is something it’s not: If you recall the way NBC marketed Leno and his move to a better time slot, they tried to sell him as a broadcast institution. In reality, they were simply trying to save money during tough economic times and it backfired. There have been lots of examples of this type of misbranding in radio, so we cannot throw stones. Before you attempt to position a feature, show, or personality on your station, ask yourself if it will pass muster. If you have doubts, conduct some research or rethink things, as it will be a lot less expensive in the long run.

6. Timing affects perception:  Perhaps, also, what was funny at 11:30 was not as funny at 10pm. The Tonight Show had decent ratings, so moving it would lower costs and the audience would follow. However, NBC did not understand that people were content at 11:30 with some light entertainment before they drifted off to sleep, but this was not compelling enough to hold them at 10pm. The show might have been more successful if it delivered the same high caliber of writing and guests, but we’ll never know. What we do know is that people tuned out in the millions and went elsewhere.

5. Time-shifting aside, the basic rhythms of broadcasting may have an almost biological basis:
There is a body of research that indicates that TV consumers behave in a particular way. In short, they tend to watch the same programs at the same time each week. But that habit can take some time to form, and unless a show catches fire and the word of mouth increases the interest in the program, we may never see it. I travel a lot and when I am home I always seem to have lots on the go. There are several shows that I simply have never watched. “Lost” would be one example. I am sure it’s a great show but I did not see the early episodes and now I just cannot be bothered. I am time starved and only have time for a few television programs each week.

4. If you’re in media, you’re in a way different business than you were even just five years ago: 17 years ago, when Jay took over the Tonight Show, it was a big deal. Today, there are a lot more entertainment choices, including several channels dedicated to comedy. It’s a more crowded space, so to be successful a show has to be great on day one or soon after. In short it’s a different world we live in today.

3. The Ripple Effect: If you’re going to change a large proportion of your product line-up, there is going to be a ripple effect on your overall brand. NBC saw ratings success because it took some risks and purchased the rights to shows such as “NY-PD Blue”.  This helped them with
their brand identity in the 80`s and early 90`s, as have more recent shows such as “The Office” and “30 Rock”. Sadly, Jay was never going to deliver the goods in 2010.

2. Allowing one outsize personality to hijack your brand identity is generally not a good idea: NBC has been hijacked by Jay Leno — except NBC invited the hijacking by insisting that Leno was going to single-handedly revolutionize prime time. Now NBC, which used to be the premiere network for smart comedy and had a storied history as a home for great drama, is both the Not Funny Enough Network and the Not Dramatic Enough Network. Lesson: never allow a personality to become bigger than your brand. It’s often better to create a show name with the personality operating under that brand. That way if they retire or move to another market you are not building the brand from scratch each time.

1. “Jay Leno is a helluva lot more annoying when you’re still wide awake”: This is Simon’s opinion and while it’s amusing, I don’t think it’s altogether true. I have seen Jay both on The Tonight Show and in a comedy club and I can tell you he is actually pretty funny. He also appears to be a good guy and someone you’d like to hang out and have a beer with.

Conclusion: There are several important lessons we can learn from the miss-steps of NBC and their handling of this situation. Jay will be back bigger than ever and probably zoom back to the top of the ratings. However, NBC will still have to groom someone to take over from him because he is getting older and cannot stay forever. Succession planning in any key position is important.  Take a moment and ask yourself if you have a plan for all your key positions in your operation, including yourself if you are at the top. Planning for tomorrow is an important part of any organization.