NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- NBC solved a short-term crisis today when it confirmed that Conan O'Brien will leave the network and Jay Leno will retake "The Tonight Show," but Mr. Leno's failure in prime time complicates the long-term challenge for all broadcast TV.
With viewership fragmenting around niche cable channels, not to mention a host of new watch-TV-when-you-want devices and technologies sprouting forth from Apple, Google and many others, it made perfect sense to launch a daily prime-time talk show that might draw fewer viewers but also cost less to produce.
It was a stab at the future, but the present intervened. NBC soon had to bow to the dictates of the market: local TV stations that saw the ratings lead-in to their crucial late local news shows decline. Now Mr. O'Brien is leaving NBC after the broadcast of his Jan. 22 program, paving the way for the cancellation of the 10 p.m. "Jay Leno Show" and the return of Mr. Leno to his popular "Tonight" roost.
Despite low ratings for Mr. Leno's 10 p.m. program, however, some might say it's a shame he couldn't last in prime time. Here's why:
TV networks need to innovate, but NBC's failure might chill their enthusiasm for doing so.
One prominent media buyer called NBC's "Leno" maneuver a "noble experiment," and suggested others might be cowed by it, rather than willing to try other radical moves that will become necessary as the TV business continues to change.
"People are going to be very cautious" going forward, said Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer at WPP's Group M, even as "audience fragmentation is putting a huge challenge on the balance sheets of the broadcast networks." Advertisers have begun to realize that "there are lots of ways to generate reach" for an ad campaign, he added, "without necessarily relying on one network to deliver it for you." That means ad dollars will get spread around an increasing number of smaller outlets, so networks have to devise new ways of entertaining viewers that remain economically viable.
Of course, it might have helped if "Leno" at 10 p.m. was more entertaining than a CBS crime drama. "The content wasn't compelling, at least in prime time," said one media-buying executive.
Affiliates will continue to get in the way of clever broadcast-network experiments.
NBC executives have readily admitted Mr. Leno's prime-time program was working as they expected. Advertisers had been prepared for lower ratings from Mr. Leno, and weren't clamoring for make-goods. But TV stations, already suffering a harsh business year thanks to drops in spending from troubled U.S. automakers and their dealerships, simply couldn't take any more.
The power of those local stations has time and again crimped some notable broadcast-network ideas. Simply put, the broadcast medium is built on a model established decades ago, in which local stations are the delivery system by which "Grey's Anatomy," big sports events and "American Idol" are transmitted into living rooms. Sometimes that content delivery is upset by the needs of the local messenger.
Case in point: During the 2002-2003 TV season, Ford Motor devised a clever way to support Fox's "24" -- in exchange for sponsoring a commercial-free premiere of the popular spy drama, Ford was able to bookend the episode with longer-than-usual commercials. Ford did the same thing for the show in the 2003-2004 season, with ads that played upon the theme of "24," even going so far as to have a character in the commercials named "Mr. Bauer" -- a play on "Jack Bauer," the central protagonist in the drama.
But Fox found the idea tough to keep going, because it required the network to find ad time elsewhere on its schedule for affiliates who lost valuable ad inventory during the "24" episodes.
Likewise, some affiliates got in the way of a clever NBC promotion for Honda in 2008. All season long, the network's "Last Comic Standing" had included ads from Honda that featured comedians driving a Honda Pilot from the automaker while cracking wise. Viewers were asked to vote for their favorite jokester online, and the winner would be unveiled during a longer-than-usual Honda ad during the show's finale. The trouble? Various NBC stations in key markets -- New York, Baltimore and Cleveland -- pre-empted that important episode, along with its must-see ad break, to show pre-season football instead.
Late-night may never be the same again.
Media buyers are concerned that Mr. Leno may not attract the same audience for "Tonight" now that he has been gone from the program for several months. Worse still, if Mr. O'Brien ends up at a rival -- NBC said he is free to pursue other opportunities after Sept. 1, and Fox has been said to express interest in working with him -- it could potentially split ratings for the time period even further.
That's right: In late-night, there's little hope of ever getting back that Johnny Carson dynamic that was the baseline for decades.
When NBC gave Mr. Leno "Tonight" in 1992, it started a series of events that sent David Letterman, one-time host of NBC's "Late Night," to CBS, splitting an audience that had been truly dominated by NBC.
Since that time, plenty of networks have tried the late-night game, with varying degrees of success. These days, viewers can choose among female-skewing Chelsea Handler on E!, oddball animation on Time Warner's "Adult Swim," satiric hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Viacom's Comedy Central, rookie George Lopez on TBS, "Nightline" and Jimmy Kimmel on Walt Disney's ABC, and Mr. Letterman and Craig Ferguson on CBS.
One can make the argument that if NBC handled these transitions better, it would dominate all of late night, not just run the show that gets the most eyeballs among two handfuls of viewing options.