The Jay Leno Experiment & Radio

If you've been watching NBC Universal's 10 pm experiment in which it strips Jay Leno's imitation Tonight Show weeknights, then I'm sure you are seeing the similarities to what's happening in radio.

An excellent piece in The New York Times laid it all out a few days ago.

NBC wants to save money by eliminating the huge production costs of underwriting a new dramatic series (you know, the CSI-type) by going cheap.

An hour of Leno is chump change by TV production standards and yet the network is hopeful that a consistent 1.5 share can earn them $250 million.

Such a deal.

And don't worry about older ratings -- there is plenty of Viagra and Boniva to sell.

A 1.5 share equals $250 million -- mostly profit.

See where this begins to sound like radio?

Cut the morning show down to basics (or use syndication) and your costs will go down and profit will go up. Go ahead and voice track a few dayparts and personnel costs continue to plummet. Spend less on content one way or the other and you can still sell the content to advertisers -- even at the cheap rates that radio stations are getting these days.

Well, the secret is out as Jay Leno, a great guy, funny comedian and loyal NBC employee, is either pioneering the future or killing it -- the debate rages.

In this way, television wants to be radio.

By shuffling Conan O'Brien to The Tonight Show, a deal that was done too many years ago to be effective in today's ratings world, NBC has given CBS' David Letterman the lead -- albeit helped by older demos than Conan attracts. And the domino effect begins.

Leno, settling in to only five million viewers a night provides a weaker lead-in to local affiliate news broadcasts at 10 or 11. Then diminished audiences for O'Brien follow and even fewer viewers available for the post-Tonight show -- in this case Jimmy Fallon.

It's still possible that NBC turns out to be a genius on this strategy but I'm doubting it. Nothing against Leno, but the idea of stripping an economically produced comedy/variety hour at the end of prime time to save money is as ill-conceived as taking a local radio show off the air and replacing it with national syndication for next to nothing.

It's really very simple.

If radio had not been consolidated and remained in the hands of thousands of smaller owners and mom and pop operators, it is very unlikely some geniuses would come along and find ways to cut the very essence of its popularity by cutting content.

Do you really want an empty suit who never made it past market manager reinventing the radio industry? Well, that's what we got.

Most smart radio folks know exactly what is wrong and yet they are powerless to do anything about it.

I'm not saying go on a spending spree in a recession -- far from it. But don't pull the plug on the one thing radio has that no iPod, cell phone or webcast has -- local personalities.

So if NBC has borrowed a radio strategy to gut costs (that's not a typo -- I mean "gut"), then I wonder what would happen if the radio industry borrowed the concept of putting a comedian in charge of running their radio groups.

Okay, we're ahead of them on that one.

John Slogan Hogan is a joke at Clear Channel. We laughed hard at Less is More but all kidding aside -- it's not easy to take the largest talent pool in American radio and lay it off.

For what? Music with voice tracking?

Lew Dickey Do looks like he is having a family spat and the radio industry got in the way. If it didn't cause so much harm to the employees or listeners, it would be kind of funny -- a bunch of siblings who returned from their educations wound up with a sandbox to play in.

This is scary. We're so used to it I think we forget how scary it really is.

Farid "Fagreed" Suleman was the chief bean counter for Mel Karmazin and with all due respect -- Mel ran Infinity and CBS, not Fagreed. Yet this man finds himself on the brink of bankruptcy for mismanaging -- guess what? Debt. Something a financial guy should have as one of his core competencies.

How ironic -- a financial guy who can't make the numbers come out with enough money to keep the wolf away from the door except in good times. People on the outside looking in should do a WKRP series on that.

But they can't.

No TV production shows at 10 pm, anymore, remember?

I'm going to start a list of lessons for TV and radio cheapskates who happen to be running some of our best assets. You can add to it if you like:

1. Repeat the following: A shoe store has nothing to sell if they don't have any stock and a radio station or TV network has nothing to ... well, you get the drift.

2. If you're in over your head, admitting it is more admirable than denying it and I will give Farid Suleman credit for picking a new media man John Rosso to help Citadel Media (formerly ABC Radio). But I've got to tell you there was absolutely nothing wrong with the man they had -- Jim Robinson -- that a little support, autonomy and financing wouldn't have helped. In other words, in 9o% of the cases, media companies actually have the right person in the job now. The wrong CEO is the problem.

3. Ratings fall like dominoes. For operators who think they can just strip a Leno-type show at 10 pm to save costs and hopefully make money, there are other repercussions such as local news at 11 and the rest of the late night schedule. Translated for radio that means, diminish your air personalities and you've hurt the rest of the station not just one daypart.

4. The most dangerous misconception in radio right now is the notion that programming to the People Eater (my name for PPM) will build audience. A meter picking up an encoded message and reporting drive-by listening is false listening. If and when agencies figure this out, it will result in lower ad rates. Once programmers realize that driving up false listening is a poor basis for content decisions, it will be too late. At NBC they just ignore the demographics and sell through them in the case of Leno.

5. The absolute worst time for television and radio to be compromising its content, dismissing its personalities and hurting local audiences is now when so many consumers have other digital, Internet and mobile choices.

I'm going to say this as succinctly as possible.

To thrive in the age of digital competition, radio and television needs to nurture their marketable personalities and build their loyal followings -- not try to broadcast hamburger helper to save money,

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