Lessons in the Leno Failure
NBC's late night retreat is seen universally as the white flag of primetime surrender. Remember all those "10" spots last summer with Jay driving down the road in his sports car? NBC probably now wishes it had sold that inventory. But despite the obvious cry of "uncle" from NBC, there are a couple of good reminders for all of local television in this whole debacle.
NBC affiliates still have some juice. After a disastrous November for both affiliates and the network, NBC stations were heard loud and clear: the Leno experiment was a failure. To its credit, NBC listened. (And let's face it, it was getting hammered, too.) The "who needs affiliates?" talk isn't quite as loud now.
The audience still decides who is successful and who is not.
Whether it's late news numbers, primetime ratings or online downloads, more audience generally equates to more money. The idea that network television can be strengthened by cutting the size of its audience and "managing for the margins" needs to be re-thought. Isn't shrinking the number of viewers the antithesis of what makes network television valuable?
While audience is shrinking, do we need to speed up that process unnecessarily? There is danger in our business of getting too far ahead of the curve. The talk of fundamental media change is everywhere, but trying to force new habits and ideas on an unwilling audience is risky business. While NBC has embraced the idea that the current network and affiliate model is broken, and tried to blaze a new path, CBS and ABC have strengthened their financial position (and their owned-affiliates) by getting back to old-school basics: Popular programs and improved local newscasts. Remember that next time someone advocates giving up on what brought you this far.
There's more change ahead for network television and Leno won't be the last experiment. But a few more Dateline and Law & Order episodes may be necessary before anyone gets a handle on the brave new media world.
- John Altenbern