In Leno Fiasco, a Window to the Midlife Crisis of NBC


Author: David Carr

In the old paradigm, networks operated from Olympian heights, but with cable outlets multiplying, a network's size and mass audience are not always an advantage. While cable networks can pick and choose their spots, building discrete successes while living off a combination of fees and advertising, broadcast networks are at the top of a huge ecosystem where their every move lands forcefully on affiliated locals. For big corporations, it is often about defense, so it made some sense to put Jay Leno on a timer in order to hang on to the very talented Conan O'Brien. And when NBC struggled to compete with its network brethren because of bad programming bets, it addressed the decline by changing the game, busting up the prime-time grid and inserting Mr. Leno at 10 p.m. At the time, it was viewed as a way to cut costs and keep a proven talent away from competitors, while making room for the ascendance of Mr. O'Brien to "The Tonight Show." Everybody hugged. It was win-win, right? But the not-so-reinvented, not-so-funny "Jay Leno Show" had the ratings of a night light, setting off a revolt from affiliates that, according to Ad Age, had a terrible year, with a breathtaking 22.4 percent drop in revenue from 2008. And it didn't help that Mr. O'Brien was pummeled on Mr. Leno's old perch. The fiasco suggests that networks mess with the inertia of viewing habits at their extreme peril.

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