Leno/O’Brien. It has dominated the news for a couple weeks now and I confess that, even though I’m more of a Letterman-viewer myself (on the odd occasion when I watch TV), I’ve been drawn to the debate and have even tuned in to see Leno or O’Brien and to watch how they are dealing with (and joking about) the situation.
Today, Conan O’Brien cashes out of NBC with a $45 million dollar deal-breaking payout. Leno moves back to “his” spot. And now there’s a big gaping “Leno hole” at 10.
For a brief period, ratings will spike as people watch to see what happens (I’m tuning in and I barely care). Then ratings will decline, probably close to the levels where Jay left them when he moved to his primetime spot. Maybe slightly lower.
For some, it will be business as usual:
- Letterman will make some wiseass comments to get a laugh but then continue chugging along. There’s no win (he won’t gain more viewers from this) but no loss, either.
- The advertisers will get a slight spike in attention for the few weeks that we’re all tuning in but then it will go back to business as usual for them. Meh.
And some come out as clear losers:
- Conan gets $45 million but will be remembered as the guy who got ousted from the Tonight Show for tanked ratings (whether or not those were his fault). Actually, since it’s been reported that he shared some of his money out of his own pocket with his staff, he might actually be positioned as benevolent in spite of the circumstances.
- Leno gets his old job back but will be perceived as petty and vindictive (even if it wasn’t him that initiated the change and he’s doing his best to make it appear that way).
In both cases, this will appear as a “you might remember” factor on every write-up about them in the future.
And, although I’m not in show business, I am in business and work with people all the time on improving communications or using content to solve situations. I would make these recommendations to Jay Leno: Have Conan on your show one day. Soon. Keep it light and fun, make fun of NBC, get seen together smiling. It will be good for BOTH parties. Or, they need to both go to Haiti at the same time and work together. I’m not kidding. That will kill any future story of animosity (and help the people of Haiti while also refocusing the spotlight where it should be).
But NBC is screwed
There is no way that NBC can come out of this unscathed. They’ll make some money on the advertising spike, but that’s about it. They’ll seem foolish for initiating the whole debacle by moving Leno from a place where he was very good to primetime timeslot. They’ll seem like they are jumping the gun a little for reacting to Leno’s and O’Brien’s ratings only 4 months into the shows. They’ll seem cold-hearted for removing O’Brien. And they’ll seem like they don’t know what they are doing by putting Leno back to where he shone. And, they’ll seem foolish for spending millions and millions of dollars to pay off Conan O’Brien and to fill what I’ve dubbed “The Leno hole” — that primetime spot that will now be filled by Law & Order re-runs. Oh, and when Conan gets a new job, NBC will be the butt of nearly every joke (in the same way that GE is for Letterman).
Ultimately, it is going to cost them. A lot. Bad PR, millions in “fix-it” money, and an erosion of viewership. They are almost exactly where they were several months ago, just $45 million lighter (and potentially way more than that if they decide to spend good money on filling the 10pm Leno hole).
This is a classic case of corporate blundering in an attempt to fix a previous error. And they are either going to try to spin it (bad idea) or ride it out without saying anything and hope for the best (a slightly less bad idea).