Late Night Wars (the 21st Century Edition) – Part 2

01/13/2010 at 12:55 am | Posted in Net/Spec | 5 Comments

This is Part Two.  Make sure to read Part One first.

Ok, so now we are back in present day.  Seven months after it started, NBC wants to change it to The Jay Leno Show at 11:35p, The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien at 12:05a-1:05a, & Late Night with Jimmy Fallon 1:05a-2:05a.

So why are they cutting short their commitment to the experiment?  Did it get worse ratings than expected?

Short answer:  No.

Longer answer:  Not only did it usually perform as expected, but some nights it actually out-performed ABC to come in at #2 for the night.  And those programs weren’t even reruns!  The Jay Leno Show did exactly what it said it would do to make the $300 million profit selling ad space at the A18-49 demo’s 1.5 rate (on a local and national level).

However, the affiliates have been very unhappy.  They claim that their local news has in fact suffered SO much that some of the stations went from being the #1 11p news to #3.  That’s HUGE!  Not only are they going to have to significantly drop their buy rates for the upcoming quarters, but they will have to be giving those advertisers some makegoods for not hitting the rating they had bought the 30 second spot for.

And yes, since Jay left The Tonight Show, they are now losing in the ratings to Letterman; even Fallon (who was beating Craig when following after Jay) is falling behind the competition. 

However, it would be ridiculous to slam Conan for “killing” The Tonight Show.  It took Leno 18 months to get The Tonight Show from last to #1 in the time period – thanks to Don Ohlmeyer coming in to save the network and retooling Jay’s show.  Conan has had only 7 months.  I highly doubt ANYBODY thought Conan would hit the gate running.  It’s entirely a different world in the 11:35p time period. 

If anything, you could look at a trickle-down effect being partly to blame for The Tonight Show’s current ratings.  If The Jay Leno Show brings in only a 1.5 rating, brings in fewer eyes to the 11p local news, which may in turn lower the number of eyes at 11:35p (who would normally keep the TV on NBC after watching the news).

Also, four late night talk show-type programs on one network could dilute interest/viewership in the format.  NBC wasn’t trying to ADD viewers, just profits.  Let’s do the math.  

Before I start, let me say the number I’m using is WAY more than they get.  It’s just easier math this way:

Let’s pretend NBC’s late night was getting 6 million viewers spread evenly over the two shows (we aren’t counting Carson Daly).  They AREN’T even, but for numbers’ sake they are.  That’s 3 million viewers per night per show. 

NOW let’s do it using The Jay Leno Show’s talk show combined with the other two programs.  Each program would now get 2 million per show.  So in this example, The Tonight Show & Late Night are each down 33% on viewership.  Ouch!

NBC's Jeff Gaspin

Jeff Gaspin, NBC’s current head honcho (he’s under Zucker though, FYI) is stating that the reason for ditching Leno at 10p was strictly due to this hurting the local affiliates’ news, even more than they thought.  So to appease the affiliates, they were going to put new programs in at 10p M-F after the Olympics.

However, there’s a missing element.  Don’t misunderstand me.  This for sure has to do with the angry affiliates.  But probably the MAIN reason for not telling the affiliates to suck it up and wait it out – and instead trying to please them – has to do with a certain cable company. 

In case you didn’t know, Comcast is buying a 51% share of NBC.  Affiliates potentially have the power to kill this transaction.  So NBC wants to make them happy, so they’ll give a thumbs-up to the whole deal.

Gaspin of course is going to say that isn’t the reason.  He probably legally has to.  Either way, I wouldn’t rule that out for the sudden late night shake-up.

So there you have it.  Probably the most information you need in order to understand why these changes are happening. 

The hosts were then given this weekend to decide what they thought of the proposed new schedule; not exactly a lot of time to reflect. 

So how have the three talk show hosts responded?  As for as I know, Leno is more than ok with it (he didn’t want to leave 11:35p in the first place).  Fallon is so new – he’s just along for the ride. 

However, Conan today has issued a statement saying that he will not move The Tonight Show to 12:05a.  Either he’s on at 11:35p, or he’s not on NBC.  This evening both sides meant to talk.  NBC now has to decide what to do.

As I’m publishing this report, nothing has been decided.  Even though they gave the hosts all of three days to think it over, they said they will have THEIR answer by the February 12th (the last day of the current schedule).

Does anybody win in this equation?  Yes.  Hollywood cast and crew will now be creating shows to fill in those 10p spots.  However, don’t look for five new scripted shows right after the Olympics.  They’ve made it clear that until next fall season, there may be a few new dramas, some nights of Dateline and reality shows for sure.

Also, current shows with so-so ratings on NBC now have a greater chance of renewal; since it would be uncharacteristic of  NBC to clean house and start over (even though a relatively blank slate may be what is needed).  When they announced last season the Leno program, that gave programs 5 less slots to air.  So NBC had to evaluate how many shows would have to go to make room for Leno, where to put Law & Order: SVU (their popular 10p drama), and how many new pilots they could purchase.  Even though they did renew SouthLAnd for a 2nd season, they cancelled it months before it was to air.  Had NBC still been able to air it at 10p, it probably would have at least aired the episodes ordered; but they deemed it too gritty/dark for 9p, and sent it packing.  Chuck was also a show that was in serious danger of cancellation due to less real estate over at NBC.

NBC's Chuck on Mondays at 8/7 Central

So now that 10p M-F will be open, and there isn’t enough time for a full slate of NEW shows to be ready to go – and NBC would want shows with a fan-base to help retain viewers – some bubble shows could be safe for another season.

So who’s the bad guy in all of this? 

Is it Leno, who would be pushing Conan later into the night; or even replacing him if NBC decides to let Conan go?  No.  Leno didn’t want to leave in the first place.  He wasn’t ready to hang up his platform in 2004, and he isn’t ready for it now.

Is it Conan, who is standing his ground?  Of course not.  Leno had 18 months to get to #1; Conan has been hosting the show for 7 months.  In his eloquent press release, he explains that moving The Tonight Show is not only unfair to the legacy of the show, but also not fair to Fallon.  He’s doing what he thinks is right.

It’s important to note that there is no evidence of any hard feelings between Leno and Conan.  It seems like everyone is taking sides as to Leno v. Conan.  This is pointless as I think if anything, they are on the same side with this; which happens to be on the opposite side of NBC.

So is it the fault of the affiliates who (not officially, of course) hold the Comcast deal in their hands?  No.  Their news ratings are suffering – and probably their other programs – so they are making less money.  No one can fault them for wanting to NOT LOSE THEIR INCOME.

I wouldn’t even necessarily call NBC “bad guys” in this.  The whole debacle is a total case of their eyes being bigger than their stomach.  They don’t want to lose any of them, but yet I have a hard time believing that they actually thought every party involved would be cool with the new lineup.  It’s not like the Palestinians were super-pumped to be told to move over and make room for their new neighbors in the Gaza Strip (which is exactly happening in this case).  However, looking at things in NBC’s shoes (where they aren’t wanting to just let one of them go), this was probably the only option they could present. 

You have to believe that both Leno & Conan have a bad taste in their mouth trusting NBC.  In the long run, I wouldn’t be surprised if the person they decide to keep ends up leaving due to mistrust.

I’ll keep you updated with any new developments in this horrible, crazy situation.

Regardless, the only way NBC could have avoided this was to (YEARS ago) just pick which one to keep on the network.  It’s beyond wanting your cake and eating it too; it’s wanting your cake, but not wanting to share the delicious cake with anyone else.  You’ll end up eating it all yourself, and puking over all of the birthday party guests.  No one wins.


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  2. Nice stuff! I’ve been far too busy to follow along with all of this. I kept seeing Conan pop up on CNN and the like at work, but was moving too fast to read the closed captioning. So, thanks 🙂 It’s a lot of information, but I now feel I’ve got it all under wraps in the ol’ noggin. Definitely keep us posted!

  3. Interesting analysis. I have to admit though that despite not being a huge Conan fan (his humor is not exactly my taste), Leno has left a bad taste in my mouth overall. I really feel he’s been phoning in his work for years and I was glad to see him go. And now that Zucker is threatening to put Conan into a career deep freeze for the next 3.5 years, I think Coco has been given an especially raw deal in all of this. All in all, there is a lot of mud on NBC’s face and they should feel embarrassed for how they’ve handled it, from the strong arming of affiliates to the bait and switch with their late night hosts. I think Americans are sick of the antics of the Big Three Networks, and you can tell this not only by the fact that they are flocking to shows on cable, but also by the howls of glee I am hearing every night now as Conan skewers the NBC execs in his monologue.

  4. Nicely explained, although you may have to update the Conan-doesn’t-hate-Jay section. Leno’s always been more popular with viewers than with critics and peers.

    It’s all relative. Leno had more viewers in prime time than Jon Stewart, but you’re right, affiliates suddenly matter when you need everyone on board for a merger that’ll eventually probably end up marginalizing those same affiliates anyway. NBC/Universal execs may actually be starting to think long term:)

  5. […] Also, we discussed the facts of the 2010 Late Night Wars here and here […]

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