The Leno Lesson

So NBC screwed up.

Programming execs tried to plan for the future five years ago but the future is never predictable. Just try to remember what life was like five years ago and see if you could have predicted the ways things are today.

Ironically, the announcement that Jay Leno’s abysmal 10 pm eastern weeknight version of his old Tonight Show, was broken by the most trusted name in news.


I’m being a little sarcastic here, but not that much.

In a world that sees The National Enquirer and TMZ taking all the risks and usually being right, who could have imagined years ago that CNN, ABC, AP – somebody traditional – would be cutting back so much that they forgot to search for the news?

If these traditional news sources are missing fluff stories such as entertainment news, you can only imagine what they are missing on the health care debate or homeland security.

George Stephanopoulos put his foot in his mouth prior to the weekend when he let Rudy Giuliani get away with factual errors. To his credit Stephanopoulos later apologized and took full responsibility for the botched interview.

Back to the Leno mess.

NBC thought it could see the future from their 30 Rock offices and predicted Leno would be too old to attract desirable demographics by 2009 so they came up with the masterful plan to retire Leno as they knighted his heir apparent Conan O’Brien to takeover The Tonight Show.

Of course, NBC affiliates knew better but hey, who asked them?

The Boston affiliate balked at running Leno at 10 pm and he was whipped back into shape with the threat of having his NBC affiliation yanked.

He turned out to be right.

You see, the media industry has it backwards. Media execs think all entertainment trends start in their offices. They need to get out more often, it seems.

Now Leno is going off at 10 pm as local affiliates are tired of losing the late local news ratings to such a weak lead in. And with Comcast coming in to take over operating control of NBC Universal (and who could have predicted that five years ago), Comcast was attracted to NBC's
content not necessarily the savings NBC U parent GE absolutely needed.

The latest NBC screw up in the making is to put Leno on for only a half hour at 11:30 eastern presumably on the strength of his monologue and one guest. And Conan at 12 midnight to attract younger demos. This is the media version of being half-pregnant.

If NBC is trying to push O’Brien out, that was unforeseen as well since they signed him to a long, lucrative contract to be the next Jay Leno. Conan could wind up on Fox or, less likely, on ABC. What a mess.

One thing is certain – Leno will be on for at least a half hour and maybe the entire Tonight Show again if O'Brien bolts. Conan O'Brien's fate will become known after he negotiates with NBC and its competitors.

Lessons anyone?

1. You don’t separate talent from their audience when they are still getting ratings and generating revenue and The Tonight Show was number one in both. Attention radio consolidators: this means you, too.

2. No one can see the future – just future possibilities. That’s why five-year business plans are out and contingency plans should be in. What NBC should have looked for is options. Options if Jay lost his ratings. If his audience got too old and it affected sales. If Conan got restless and threatened to leave. Attention radio consolidators: Warren Buffett buys the management of the businesses he likes and keeps it in place. Good management is always studying contingencies.

3. When you fail to let consumers have their way, your reward is to go down by having it your way. It happens all the time in the media business. NBC has a bigger mess than it would ever have had if it programmed to the audiences’ liking. Radio CEOs have severed the ties between local radio, and its news and personalities in the name of Wall Street and look where it has gotten them? Bankruptcy.

4. Even the mighty Apple CEO Steve Jobs isn’t foolish enough to deliver products to the marketplace the way he necessarily wants them delivered. Becoming consumer driven is a forgotten skill of media companies. They used to know how to please audiences, but have been distracted by trying to assuage their own egos and pay homage to the lenders that prop them up.

The Leno lesson is quite clear to those who will listen.

Or to put it in the lingo of the fabulous Texas journalist, the late Molly Ivins, “You’ve got to dance with them that brung you”.

NBC needed to dance with their affiliates.

NBC programming "genius" Jeff Zucker needed to respect the power of a Tonight Show that was number one in ratings and revenue. He could have readied contingency plans but not act on assumptions.

Radio consolidators paid inflated prices that Wall Street banks were all too happy to fund, but they needed to go with the management, programming, sales and marketing people and policies that made radio a business that attracted large investors.

One more thing.

While the newspaper business was trying to figure out how to deal with its nemesis, the Internet, a brash LA attorney, Harvey Levin, started his own publication – TMZ.

While the Times and the Journal negotiated cost savings by cutting their newsrooms, Arianna Huffington launched her own cost-effective online Huffington Post – now an online news alternative for millions of readers.

Five years ago, who knew?

Proving once again that the future occurs in the present and is not predictable in any way, shape or form.

The only thing that is predictable is that any fool who sees the future and takes his or her eyes off the consumer will lose.

Can you say radio?

The record business?


And now TV?

Thank you, NBC for giving the Harvard Business School another case study for how not to run a media business.

The question is -- is the lesson written off to pop culture or are we going to study it?

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