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Three things I learned from the Leno - O'Brien debacle

February 9, 2010 |  4:57 pm

LENOOBRIEN

Considering all the ink that's been spilled on NBC and Jay Leno over the past year, it just doesn't seem right to not offer some final thoughts as he prepares to wrap up his brief but tumultuous run in prime time.

Tonight is Jay Leno's last show in the 10 p.m. slot. But Bette Midler won't be singing goodbye to him. Instead he'll probably make some tired jokes about Demi Moore to his big final guest Ashton Kutcher.

You might think that there is little left to say about NBC's ill-fated decision to put Leno on prime time and then later move him back to late night, leading Conan O'Brien to quit. But there are still a few lessons to be had in all this. Every morning, I listen to Dan Patrick's radio program on my drive into work and at the end of each show he asks his sidekicks what they've learned. So I will take a page from Patrick and offer the three things I learned from NBC's Jay Leno - Conan O'Brien fiasco.

1. Affiliates still matter.

For the last decade or so, the broadcast networks have done all they can to lessen the power of their local television station affiliates. They've either eliminated or drastically cut the money they used to pay affiliates in return for being able to sell the majority of commercial time on the stations. The shows that affiliates used to get exclusively now show up online and elsewhere days, if not hours, after they air on their stations, which means the value of the programming to the local GM has been lessened. Networks are even demanding cuts of any money affiliates get from cable operators who pay to carry their signal. In other words, affiliates went from a vital cog in the network distribution model to an afterthought. NBC didn't really care whether the affiliates would suffer from having Jay Leno's smaller ratings in prime time vs. the dramas that used to be there.

But the numbers for Leno were so bad the affiliates were able to rise up and say, to borrow from Howard Beale, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." NBC could slap one or two wayward affiliates, but when a big chunk of its affiliate base started screaming enough, the network had to cave. Five years from now, that may no longer be the case. But for one brief shining moment, affiliates got to flex some muscle.

2. Sometimes planning ahead isn't such a hot idea.

NBC got into this whole mess because it didn't want to lose Conan O'Brien to a rival network. Worried he might go to Fox, NBC agreed in 2004 to make him the host of "The Tonight Show" come 2009. The only problem with that was Jay Leno was still in first place and showing no sign of slowing down. It'd be like the Lakers telling Kobe Bryant, "You're great, but in five years we're replacing you regardless of how you are holding up." Not to get all historical, but Dan Rather forced the hand of CBS into easing Walter Cronkite out because ABC was wooing him. CBS still hasn't really recovered from that messy transition. 

This isn't to say that businesses shouldn't plan ahead. But be prepared to switch those plans if the situation changes. NBC would've saved itself and its affiliates a lot of money and Leno and O'Brien a lot of grief if they had just paid O'Brien off instead of giving him "The Tonight Show." Maybe then O'Brien would've gone to Fox and succeeded on his terms.

3. Don't confuse innovation with desperation. 

NBC Universal chief executive Jeff Zucker has repeatedly said he made the decision to put Leno on in prime time because it was a cheaper and less risky alternative to programming expensive dramas, many of which flop. However, when NBC Universal entertainment chief Jeff Gaspin was interviewed at an industry conference last month, he said Leno was given a prime-time slot to keep him from going to a competitor. We're guessing that Gaspin is being a little more candid about NBC's motivations.

Sometimes desperation does lead to innovation, but if NBC had not been in dire straits in prime time, it never would've offered Leno a slot. A couple of successful 10 p.m. dramas can make a lot more money long-term than Leno's show could. Networks do need to take risks to succeed. The move with Leno was worth trying but the execution was lacking. Who knows, maybe if he'd been on at 8 p.m. instead of 10 p.m., NBC would have a different story to tell.

In a few hours, Leno will make his final prime-time jokes and try to put the last five months behind him. In about three weeks, he'll be back on as host of "The Tonight Show" and we'll see if America is as glad to see him back in late night as he is to be there.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno in happier times. Credit: Paul Drinkwater/Associated Press.