The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Mark Cuban on Jeff Zucker's Leno-Conan debacle: 'The exact right move'


You gotta' love Mark Cuban, the famously contrarian, shoot-from-the-hip owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who's best known in Hollywood as the indy film patron behind 2929 Entertainment and the Landmark Theater chain.

Whatever happens in the NBA, Cuban is usually mad about it, resulting in a record $1.6 million in fines for the kind of maniacal court-side behavior that makes the Washington Wizards gunslinger Gilbert Arenas look like a choirboy. In the movie business, Cuban has been a true maverick, pioneering the game-changing plan of releasing films (such as Steven Soderbergh's "Bubble") day and date in theaters and on VOD and DVD, so far with little success.

But now he's really gone over the deep end. He's weighed in on NBC's Conan-Leno late-night debacle, saying on his blog that NBC dolt-in-chief Jeff Zucker's disastrous decision to move Jay Leno to prime time was "the EXACT RIGHT MOVE."  


According to Cuban, NBC's decision was a sensible response to the new realities of network TV. As he put it: "Business environments change. When they do, as broadcast network television has, and continues to, there are two basic choices: You can do it the way it's always been done, or you can challenge yourself to change the game."

Cuban contends that although moving Leno was a risk, it was appropriate, because if the gamble worked, the upside was huge, with a successful 10 p.m. Leno show changing "the economics of prime time TV dramatically for the better," since the cost of a talk show in prime time is far less than the cost of all the high priced hourlong dramas that normally occupy that time slot -- and often fail to find an audience anyway.

Cuban believes that even though the move failed, little has been lost, saying "in a few years the Leno experiment will be nothing more than a memory." But what really bugs Cuban is that the media was so quick to bash NBC and Zucker for making a bold move. Here's how he puts it:

"What I have learned from watching all of this is that corporate America has been neutered.... In today's corporate world, if you don't take risks, you don't get skewered on blogs, on cable news, in the newspaper. Public condemnation appears to be a far worse consequence than financial success is a reward.... We need more Jeff Zuckers. We need people who try to change the game. Who don't just approach problems with gutless answers."

What Cuban fails to mention is the fact that the media didn't bash Zucker for trying a bold experiment, but for tossing five hours of precious prime-time dramatic programming into the trash as well as making a promise to Conan O'Brien that he couldn't keep -- i.e., making him wait around for years to get "The Tonight Show" and then yanking it away as soon as the "bold experiment" began to go wrong. After all, moving Leno to 10 p.m. was hardly a bold experiment. It was an act of desperate expediency when Zucker realized that he couldn't let his late-night meal-ticket defect to a rival network.

As for the media, I think Cuban sells them short. They have been huge enthusiasts for all sorts of risk-taking experiments and new technology, including Apple's iTunes music store (which revolutionized the music business at a time when the conventional wisdom held that no one would actually pay money to download songs) and digital cinema, which is changing the shape of the movie business as we speak. In fact, if Cuban looked even closer to home, he'd see that he's received a ton of support for his day-and-date movie release experiment from many of the same bloggers and media types who've been bashing NBC and Jeff Zucker.

No one's mad at Zucker for his bold risk-taking. We're mad at him for his callousness and stupidity.

Photo: Mark Cuban. Credit: Derick E. Hingle / US Presswire.

Comments () | Archives (15)

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The amazing thing is that outside of Jeff Zucker, nobody ever thought at 10pm talk show, followed by the regular late night line-up, was ever going to work. Nobody. Jeff Zucker should be credited for taking risks that most people predicted would fail?

It's like calling someone a great driver for having the balls to drive into a tree at 60mph just to see what would happen.

Well said. Thank you L.A. times for clearing that up. Im with coco

Mr. Goldstein, you're entitled to your opinion ... and so is Mark Cuban! Vive la tolerance!

wow cuban is an idiot!

At 1st, I thought that Conan was the guy who was taken advantage of in this whole mess. However, I found out that it was CONAN who threatened NBC years ago that he was going to "walk out" & go to FOX if they didn't give him the Tonight Show & force Leno to retire. I had originally thought it was Leno's idea to retire at his own volition, but he was the one who was "forced out". Then NBC gave Leno the option of the 10pm spot. Who could blame Jay for taking that offer? Then it was NBC who told Leno that his 10pm spot was being cancelled & they would NOT let Leno out of his contract --- so Leno had no say with regards to going back to the 11:35pm spot. NBC wanted it that way --- & they wanted Conan pushed back to 12:05 because Conan's ratings weren't doing well. Conan is the one threatening *again* to walk away (& with 40 million dollars!!), so it's been CONAN, *not* Leno who's been the mastermind behind the threats to walk away.

Putting Jay Leno on at 10pm was 'risk taking?' That was a train wreck from the start, and everyone knew it. His abysmal ratings and older demographic killed any chance Conan had to succeed (who was still #1 among 18-35 yr olds). I would have been interested to see if Jay had been cancelled and NBC kept Conan, would the new infusion of shows leading into late night have helped Conan's ratings? I have no doubt in my mind they would have. I guess Jay will benefit from them now...Good old, boring, safe, inoffensive, dull witted, pleasant, routine borrowing Jay Leno, ever the good Company Man.

Putting Leno in 10 p.m. primetime, for Zucker, was not at all a risk. It was covering his ass, just as it always has been.

The right thing Zucker did was to keep Leno in the NBC fold while fulfilling the contractual handoff Conan. Yeah, Leno @ 10pm bombed, but so did Conan taking over for Leno. It was NBC's "New Coke" moment. It didn't work, but it created a buzz (good or bad, it was a massive buzz), and now the old Coke is returning. The new formula will be old water under the bridge a year from now. Leno will be on top in Late Night ratings, followed by Letterman, Conan's buzz will have faded and he'll share the remaining scraps with Kimmel and reruns of Friends.

When it comes to network presidents (and vice presidents) there's a Zucker born every minute!

Good Lord. I've already decided not to EVER watch another show with Leno, no matter what time that backstabbing snake in the grass is on. Now, I may have to give up Mav's games. It's like Oprah says, "when people show you who they are, believe them". Jeez, Mark, you're an idiot and Leno and Zucker are poison.

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