Friday, January 15, 2010

Making Cents of the NBC Late Night War

Comcast is working hard to make money with their new baby NBC. It's no secret that NBC has underperformed against the competition for years. The days of Cheers, Seinfeld, L.A. Law, Friends and E.R. are all now syndicated and DVD memories. However, the one piece of real estate that NBC could rely on for decades was The Tonight Show. Except for Letterman/Viacom, the Tonight Show until recently has done a great job at winning the ratings war.

The cost of producing a late night talk show takes very little overhead and in this era of cost cutting, NBC moving Jay Leno to primetime back in September, seemed like an easy fix for the now badly wounded network. Leno has been a late night fixture for over 17 years. By moving him into primetime and handing the Late Night reigns over to Conan O'Brien seemed like a natural and refreshing move.

The one thing NBC has done right for the past few years is holding on tight to their fourth place rating among US networks. As NBC ratings and ad dollars dwindled, Leno's new slot was poised to stand out from his prime-time competitors by putting a topical comedy in a time slot dominated by scripted dramas.

Keep in mind that a drama can cost as much as five times to produce than a talk show. Although the price tag for a prime time program is much more costly, a successful drama can recoup the money later down the road with DVD sales and syndication. Late night depends on the moment to make its money by relying on high ratings to keep the ad dollars coming in night after night.

In addition, to enable a smooth transition into the new time slot, NBC reassured advertisers that they would receive an opportunity to take part by integrating their brand into the fabric of the nightly show. Leno's audience was expected to follow him to his new time slot where he would cram advertising plugs into his program. Also, this would be a win for local affiliates, as Leno would also give live teasers for upcoming local 11pm news broadcasts. Jay would say 'your local news is coming up next'. After 20 seasons of Law and Order creator Dick Wolf would never allow defense or prosecution to utter those words.

Back in May, when Jeff Zucker (NBC/Universal's Chief Executive) made this daring programming decision nobody could have predicted the public relations and rating nightmare now at hand. In addition to potentially losing one of their talented hosts to the competition, NBC is at risk of damaging the Tonight Show franchise (created in 1954 by Pat Weaver/father of Avatar actress Sigourney Weaver).

As luck would have it, Mr. O'Brien's ratings were falling just about the same time that Mr. Letterman was giving people a fresh reason to tune in, by confessing to his indiscretions with regards to his affair with a staff member. By simply restoring the pre-September line-up isn't the quick fix that NBC needs. The late night landscape has changed vastly due to the fact that edgier cable comedians, notably Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, have redefined late-night TV (also owned by Viacom).

Regarding Mr. O'Brien, his future has never been brighter. As his team renegotiate's for a possible 12:05 am programming slot, Fox has now announced that they want to talk Conan! Carefully however, since Fox has swept their late night tragedy ever so carefully under the programming rug. Anyone remember The Chevy Chase show that died a quick death after only 5 weeks on the air back in 1993? Fox 'currently' holds the prize for having the biggest failure in late night television history unless NBC decides to garner that title too.

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