Published on: January 14, 2010Now available on iTunes…
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Okay, everybody else seems to have weighed in on the Jay Leno - Conan O’Brien - NBC late night controversy. So now it’s my turn...especially because I think the whole mess teaches us a lot about strategic vs. tactical thinking.
To be clear, I really don’t care much when any of these programs get aired. Given a choice, I think that “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart and “The Colbert Report” are a lot funnier and smarter than Leno or O’Brien. I also think Letterman is funnier, though in my book, he still isn’t as funny as Stewart and Colbert. The other guy I find to be generally hysterical, but who I never watch because he’s simply on too late, is Craig Ferguson. And let’s face it - none of them are Johnny Carson. And if you’re too young to know who Johnny Carson was, or you never saw him, all I can say is - keep it to yourself. And go rent some DVDs.
However, that doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion about this whole mess. Not surprising, I guess, since I generally have opinion about everything. So here goes...
As I understand it, this is how the situation played out. Four years ago, faced with the possibility that Conan O’Brien, who occupied the 12:35-1:35 am time slot on NBC, might leave the network when his contract ran out, NBC decided to avoid any succession controversies by promising him that he would inherit the “Tonight Show” from Jay Leno in mid 2009. The feeling was that by that point Leno would be almost 60, and it would be time to bring in fresh blood and attract the younger audience that O’Brien had.
As it grew closer to the deadline, however, the suits at NBC got nervous. After all, Leno’s “Tonight Show” was in first place, and they began to worry that once Conan replaced him, Leno might start a competing show at another network. So they hatched another plan - they decided to ‘remake the face of television’ and give Leno a show weeknights at 10 pm. The network that had for so many years used that hour for prestige dramas such as “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Miami Vice” and “ER” decided that this would keep Leno at at the network and save money, since it could produce a week of Leno shows at 10 pm for less than it cost to make a single one-hour drama. These new efficiencies, they told us, would create new paradigms for network television.
What it did, however, was establish new paradigms for public humiliation and ratings disasters.
Leno’s ratings at 10 pm were abysmal. That created problems for the local newscasts that followed him, which saw their ratings sink. And Conan’s show lost many of the viewers who watched the Leno ‘Tonight Show,” in part because he appeals to a different demographic, and in part because fewer people watched NBC because once Leno came on at 10, it was like dominoes falling.
NBC had promised to give this experiment a year to see if it worked out. Under pressure from local affiliates, they only gave it seven months. This week, they announced that they would return Leno to the 11:30 pm time slot for a half-hour show, and would push Conan’s one-hour “Tonight Show” back to 12 midnight. As of this writing, Conan is resisting the plan, saying that the network is ruining a franchise that is more than five decades old and arguing that by changing the rules of the game, they essentially are breaching his contract.
The betting seems to be that Conan will reach a settlement with NBC and eventually do a late night show on Fox, which doesn’t have one. Leno will re-take the “Tonight Show.” And nobody really knows what will happen to the ratings, which have been dominated by CBS and Letterman...who seems to be luxuriating in the whole disaster because it was he who got out maneuvered by Leno for the “Tonight Show” years ago when Carson decided to retire.
Now, let’s be clear. Nobody should feel sorry for any of these guys. This is rich people fighting with richer people. But there are some good lessons to be learned here...
It can be argued that in the original construct, NBC actually was thinking strategically. Create an orderly transition, position the “Tonight Show” for a younger generation, and give the whole scenario plenty of time to play out.
But what NBC lacked was the courage of its convictions, which created tactical mistakes. Once the decision was made they should have stuck with it. But they didn’t really believe in the strategy, which is why they were desperate to keep Leno. And then, ignoring the entreaties of affiliates that did not want Leno at 10, they decided to make a move that ultimately was about efficiency, not effectiveness. They said they were remaking the face of television, but that was for the headlines. They really wanted to save money, and they did not calculate the consequences, the impact on other parts of their business. Which is why, with the exception of Sunday Night Football, NBC does not have a single hit show.
In an excellent column in yesterday’s Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein put it best: NBC, he wrote, demonstrated a “mind-set that puts short-term profit over long-term value creation,” a mindset that is “ emblematic of just about everything that is wrong with American business these days.”
And the wonderful David Carr, in his New York Times column, wrote: “The message to the younger talent is one thing — wait for a turn that may never come or may be taken back at any second — but the message to younger audiences is even clearer: a legacy industry will default to legacy assets and ride them down to the bitter end.”
These are excellent lessons, whatever business you happen to be in.
Long-term value creation always is harder than short-term efficiencies, but to quote Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own,” it is the hard that makes it worthwhile. In the end, if you don’t engage in value creation, your business is going to collapse from a lack of foundation.
And while legacy assets certainly have their place, one has to know when to abandon them, or relegate them to a less important role. You have to be willing to create the future by embracing change, as opposed to yearning for the good old days when things were different.
And finally, you have to have the courage of your convictions. Having laid out a strategy, you have to believe in it and give it time to work. There were too many moving parts, collateral problems and business issues to know whether Conan’s show was going to be successful. Ultimately, the NBC executives simply did not believe in their strategy, did not believe in their vision. So they blinked, waffled and caved...and ended up creating a bigger mess than they started with.
You start to think that maybe Art Fern is running NBC.
For MNBeat Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.
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