Friday, January 08, 2010
nbc and the shadows of the night
The revolution will not be televised after all.
NBC has spent the better part of a year touting -- and then defending -- its decision to dump five hours per week of scripted programming for the much-cheaper "Jay Leno." It was described as a groundbreaking, industry-changing move that would create a new paradigm for broadcast TV. On Thursday, NBC basically admitted -- by its actions, if not yet its words -- that its bold experiment had failed. It's a messy defeat at a horrible time for the network, which is desperately trying to find any momentum it can to lift itself out of fourth place in advance of Comcast's pending acquisition of parent company NBC Universal. It's also another black mark on the track record of NBC U chief Jeff Zucker, who risked heavy amounts of political capital on the idea of Leno in primetime. In the end, the bet didn't pay off.
After hours of internet rumors and wild blog postings, by the end of the day Thursday it was clear that intense pressure from affiliates dissatisfied with Leno's poor primetime ratings was forcing NBC to move quickly to shake up the late-night status quo. Changes now very likely as early as March. According to people familiar with the situation, NBC executives are worried that a significant number of local stations -- perhaps up to a third -- could start bailing on "The Jay Leno Show" as early as this spring. That's because local sweeps periods are still used to set ad rates, and with Leno impacting local news ratings, stations already under intense financial strain fear they could take a bath if change doesn't happen soon. As a result, NBC has all but decided it can't keep Leno at 10 p.m. beyond next month. Holding up an official announcement: Working out an alternative plan that also meets with the approval of both Leno and Conan O'Brien.
Both men have contracts which guarantee them millions if NBC changes the current situation, in which Leno airs at 10 and O'Brien at 11:35. A scenario favored by some NBC insiders has Leno returning to 11:35 and O'Brien shifting back 30 minutes to 12:05. But that idea, while very much on the table, is not guaranteed to become reality, insiders told TheWrap. [...] The big question now is whether the almost inevitable shift of Leno out of his current 10 p.m. Monday-Friday timeslot will set off a reaction that leads to O'Brien walking....
Pressed by affiliates and shrinking ratings, NBC has a plan in the works to radically alter its late-night television lineup, restoring Jay Leno to his old spot at 11:35 each weeknight, while pushing the man who replaced him, Conan O’Brien, to a starting time of 12:05 a.m. [...} The revised lineup would go into effect after NBC concludes its coverage of the Winter Olympics on Feb. 28. NBC will pre-empt its prime-time and late-night lineup for more than two weeks to cover the Olympics, creating a natural break in which to put the late-night changes into effect.
And all of this coverage came from people noticing that NBC had ordered a startling 18 pilots for next season, including an even more startling 10 one-hour dramas, and unless the Leno show went away, NBC had nowhere for those shows to go, even if they cancelled the rest of their lineup.
Here's the question I'd like to see answered: if NBC really does plan to effectively cancel Leno's show as of the end of the Winter Olympics ... what do they do with the rest of this season? They didn't order drama pilots for this season in large enough numbers to cover the space. They don't have enough comedy shows in reserve to shove back their dramas into the late primetime slot. They let Southland go to TNT -- and I would argue, myself, that it should have been either there or at FX in the first place, but that's neither here nor there. They let Medium go to CBS. So far this season, they let Trauma go, period. That's three shows that they no longer have to plug holes with. The question remains: what does NBC do with that last hour of coverage from the beginning of March through the end of August? (And make no mistake: NBC will need to do something to prevent the normal summer viewing doldrums from absolutely killing any momentum they might build up for next fall.)
They may be able to expand Dateline to take over some of the space. It has the virtues of being relatively well-respected and, you know, cheap. And its ratings couldn't possibly do much worse than Leno. But even Dateline would need some prep time to get stories filmed, edited, ready to air. And the last time NBC tried to overload its nightly lineup with too much of that sort of thing, viewers, again, deserted in droves. People only want just so much news coverage, alas. Apparently, they do have some reality shows in reserve, and as noted in The Wrap's article, they can always pull over some USA, SyFy and Bravo shows for a short-term fix. (That said, they tried doing exactly that the past two summers. Turns out that people really don't want to watch USA shows on NBC. Cable penetration seems to have finally gotten deep enough that most people who want to see those shows actually do watch them on their original broadcast.) Depending on how the contract reads, they may also be able to pull "Friday Night Lights" onto the rotation a bit earlier -- though I'd think that DirectTV would object most strenuously to shortening their exclusive window.
It's likely that whatever sort of short-term solution NBC comes up with, it will involve doing something with the earlier slots as much as the later ones. Those previously mentioned reality shows without air dates will almost certainly be better suited for earlier in the evening rather than later. Perhaps they can come up with some sort of game shows on the fly or perhaps expand existing ones -- two hours of Biggest Loser that night, maybe, instead of one? except that's already been taped, of course, and that would probably be much too major an edit and would likely damage that show very badly. Regardless, doing something earlier would allow them to set the schedule back to the slightly more sane state it was in last season. "Heroes", the mostly-departed "Trauma", "Mercy", "Law and Order" and "Law and Order SVU" are all clearly in timeslots too early for the material -- the "Law and Order" shows most notably. Seriously, who on earth thought it was a good idea to lead Fridays with that material?
NBC has done this sort of rebuilding act before, of course. They were in a terrible state back in the 1980s, before they built their line-ups of doom with the Cosby Show, LA Law, ER, and other shows that pulled them out of the pit. The landscape now, however, is dramatically different. That television viewership has become heavily fractured since then may, oddly enough, help a bit; it means that in order for something to work well, it doesn't need the same sort of huge audiences that you needed back then. (A side note: One of NBC's notable decisions back in the day was cancelling an excellent comedy called "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" because it was damaging their powerhouse Thursday night lineup. At the time, Molly Dodd was something like the 13th highest rated show of the season, and LA Law, which followed, was top ten. They replaced Molly Dodd with, I believe, Family Ties or Night Court. The next season, LA Law was the top rated show on television.) That said, the one thing that NBC had at the time, which they don't have now, is time and stability. They could afford to let shows that didn't do well initially have some time to find their audience. They had people who got to hang around long enough to tinker with lineups until they worked. None of that seems to be true today; if whatever they do to make things work doesn't work fairly quickly, those people may not get a chance to try again.
Basically, NBC has a six-week to two-month window in which to figure out what the hell they do now, as well as a summer to figure out what they do next. The network's certainly going to be looking at some interesting decisions ahead. Possibly -- even probably -- in the Chinese curse sense of "interesting".
Posted by iain at 11:29 AM in category television