NBC: crazy, smart, or just desperate?

I’m eyeball-deep in writing at the moment, but I just had to briefly weigh in (along with everyone else) on what’s going on over at NBC. Long story short: they’re bleeding money and viewers, and have announced both hundreds of layoffs and the eye-popping plans to strip an hour of Jay Leno five nights a week at 10, starting next fall.

Oh, and Ben Silverman and Jeff Zucker still keep their jobs.

Everyone (and I mean everyone) is restructuring in these lean, mean times. Big media companies (and their employees) are particularly taking it on the chin, as the perennial dilemma of dwindling ratings is now compounded by disappearing ad revenue, as cost-cutting advertisers pull back. All of NBC’s competitors are having to do similar sorts of moves, in varying ways.

But NBC, that venerable old TV network, is arguably hurting the most. They’ve been mired in fourth place in the ratings for the entire post-Friends era (the last four years), and have lost both their edge in terms of affluence and 18-49 viewers. While ABC, Fox, and, especially, CBS, have found at least a few nights of stability on their schedules, NBC has holes on virtually every night. Sure, they’ve cornered the market on us effete aging hipsters with the likes of 30 Rock and The Office on Thursdays, but both shows get regularly and soundly trounced by CSI and Grey’s Anatomy. Effete aging hipsters might write a lot of great reviews and vote for the Emmys, but they do not a network make (just ask Judd Apatow or Bryan Fuller or Mitchell Hurwitz).

Even their other lone spot of moderate scripted success, Monday, hasn’t fared well of late. Heroes is creatively failing, and its bandwagon is shrinking. Hoping the Olympics would launch their fall schedule, NBC tried more action-heavy, expensive shows, like My Own Worst Enemy and a revamped Knight Rider, in an attempt to bring back the magic of Heroes circa 2006-07. That strategy utterly failed, as both shows have been cancelled.

So, faced with the very real possibility of losing one of their remaining assets, Jay Leno, to a competitor (most likely ABC), NBC has opted to give him an entire quarter of their prime-time schedule. That’s five nights of Jay, mostly doing the same stuff he’s done on The Tonight Show for the last 16+ years, only now 90 minutes earlier. Creatively speaking, this is an absolute disaster for the industry, as five hours that had been given over to scripted series are now filled with Jay, a desk, and a couch. Producers and writers are already livid with this decision, and they’re right.

Fiscally speaking, however, this will likely be a win for NBC. It’s already widely reported how much money this will save them; Jay’s show will cost less than a third as much as five new scripted series. I’m more interested in what the move offers them in terms of stability. Assuming Jay’s able to bring his late-night audience with him, and grow it a bit, they could easily lock down around 6-8 million viewers a night most nights (they’ll likely get killed on Mondays vs. CSI Miami, however). That’s a much better proposition than the anemic, up-and-down numbers they’ve been getting in that slot for years.

Critics have also complained that the Leno audience is too old, averaging well above the 18-49s ostensibly coveted by advertisers. Here, again, I think NBC made a move towards stability. The 18-49 demo is increasingly fickle, and entirely unreliable at its young end (unless you’re American Idol). The older audience is much more likely to stick around. And given the economy, the older audience may actually be more desirable to advertisers, as they’ll be more likely to have any money to spend. This could portend a big shift in the kinds of products advertised in prime time, with less Apple gizmos, movies, and cars, and more big retailers, household products, and drugs (Big Pharma’s likely going to chip in for a big chunk of NBC’s bailout).

If successful, it’ll at least keep NBC afloat as a business, even though they’ll potentially be a pale shadow of their earlier creative swagger. If it fails, this may finally be what does the seemingly indestructible Zucker in. Either way, it’s sure to be an intriguing chapter in broadcast network history, and may portend similar shifts at the other networks.


One Response to “NBC: crazy, smart, or just desperate?”

  1. The Chutry Experiment » Thursday Links Says:

    […] Derek Kompare has probably the best analysis I’ve seen of NBC’s decision to give Jay Leno the 10-11 PM time slot five nights a week […]

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