16 January 2010

Leno and O'Brien: ratings versus margins

This only partially about who’s funny and who’s not (although I sense the Leno supporters are mostly older folks, probably 50 and above. That being said, for man folks that were in their teens when Leno took over for Carson back in 1992, grew up with Leno as the host of The Tonight Show. Like the anxiety of younger Doctor Who fans who saw Tennant regenerate into Smith, for those younger Leno watchers he was their first host of that legendary show).

This is all about NBC and their margins versus ratings. The truth of the matter is, for NBC (and its investors), Jay Leno could have a million viewers at 10pm and the network was still rolling in money. What NBC failed to understand -because it was running itself like a cable network - was how low ratings would effect the NBC affiliates -some who were locally number 1 when Leno started, only to plunge to 3rd.

Plus, you add the burden of O’Brien’s renewal contract six years ago. While it’s true that O’Brien does not have that cross appeal broadcast networks want, he does attract the 18-49 demographic that the advertisers want. That was what NBC feared 6 years ago, that if O’Brien left the Peacock, he would land at another network, and steal the all important advertising buck. So they promised him The Tonight Show -despite the fact that Leno was still ahead of David Letterman in then ratings and was still printing money for the broadcast network. They just figured that by 2009, they would figure out what to do with Leno, but really hoping he would retire.

But as NBC head Jeff Zucker started treating the network like a cable channel (something they did not consider when O’Brien’s contract was renewed 6 years ago) which focuses more on margins than ratings, he realized that keeping Leno would be a financial boon for them. That even if the 10pm version of The Jay Leno Show failed ratings wise, money would still pour into NBC. But in doing so, as noted, the ratings slide his show took effected the local late news, and probably, The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien.

To me, the ratings tumble was more a domino effect and not a simple “I think Jay Leno is funnier than Conan O’Brien.”

Now NBC has put two hosts in this position with the audience now dividing themselves between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. This schism that they caused will effect both Leno and O’Brien for a long time. Leno will get back The Tonight Show, but he’ll probably never regain the ratings he once had (but he’ll still be making money for NBC no matter what, so I’m sure Zucker will be satisfied with that). Conan O’Brien will probably move to FOX, getting an 11pm show. Will his ratings approach Jay Leno ones? Probably not, but (once again) the 18-49 demographic will support him over Leno.

The idea that this is all about Jay Leno’s and Conan O’Brien’s ego is silly and manufactured. NBC was shortsighted at best, and now they have to figure out how to save face with its viewing audience. Until the broadcast networks go away -which they will - the networks have to understand that not everything is about the investors and its not all about money (though, I know it is). At the end of the day, it’s giving the viewing audience what it really wants.

And if its Jay Leno hosting The Tonight Show at 11:35pm, then so be it. I sincerely believe Conan O’Brien can be a success if he moves FOX. Both of them are funny, even if they appeal to two different age groups.

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