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Top 10 Lessons to Learn From NBC's Failing Leno Strategy

How a Network Shot Itself in the Foot by Cynically Cost-Cutting -- and Betraying Its Viewers and Affiliates

By Published on . 21

With apologies to David "Top 10" Letterman ...

10. In a morphing media marketplace, track record means nothing.
OK, maybe not quite nothing, but it turns out that 17 years of hosting "The Tonight Show" means a lot less than it might have in the past. Likewise ...

LENO: Stale Funyuns in prime time.
LENO: Stale Funyuns in prime time.
9. Longevity is not the same as brand loyalty.

8. Cutting back on quality, even in a recession, can be brand suicide.
NBC has made a lot of noise about the fact that "The Jay Leno Show" wouldn't need to be a ratings juggernaut to be considered a financial success, because it's so much cheaper to produce than the sort of scripted dramas that would typically air at 10 p.m. (9 Central). OK, fine. Congratulations (self-congratulations, at least) on saving money, NBC! Problem is, the Leno show feels so cheap that it's actually repelling viewers. Fancy new set aside, the writing's not sharp enough, the pacing's all off and the bits too often fall flat (and Leno, let's face it, was never a particularly effective interviewer). People don't want to feel like they're being made to consume a substandard product when they were used to getting a higher-quality product from the same source; do that and they'll just switch to another product. And that, duh, is not only affecting NBC's ratings, but those of its network affiliates. Last week, Craig Dubow, the CEO of Gannett -- which owns a dozen NBC-affiliate stations across the country -- said in a conference call that those stations would be doing better financially if NBC had stuck with scripted programming at 10 because Leno is such a poor lead-in for the entirely ratings-dependent local news at 11.

7. It's dangerous to pretend your brand is something it's not.
NBC executives, in marketing Leno's move to prime time, tried to position him as a beloved broadcast institution -- like they were bestowing a comedic gift on America -- as a cover for their entirely cynical cost-cutting. In reality, though, it was clear all along that late-night Leno functioned as a sort of utility: an easy, default pre-bedtime diversion literally not ready for prime time, even after 17 years. NBC used to offer substantive entrees at 10 ("ER," "Law & Order"), and figured that viewers could be forced to switch to comfort food. But Leno at 11:35 wasn't ever really even meatloaf; he was more like that stale bag of Funyuns in the back of the cupboard you were willing to settle for because mindless late-night snacking is ... mindless.

6. Timing affects perception.
Totally obvious, right? Yet NBC miscalculated, not realizing that what consumers perceive to be sufficiently amusing -- or pleasantly sedative -- at 11:35 p.m., when they're practically brain-dead after a long day, is not the same as funny at 10 p.m. Speaking of which ...

5. Time-shifting aside, the basic rhythms of broadcasting may have an almost biological basis.
Or at least established broadcasting rhythms set us up to behave a certain way as TV consumers. Makes sense, for instance, that if you consumed light fare earlier in the evening, maybe you're ready for something more substantive at 10, right? And that goofy, not-too-taxing comedy and talk works as a pretty good counterpoint after the depressing local news? NBC seemed to think it could rewrite some basic, time-honored rules of broadcasting simply by fiat. Nuh-uh.

4. If you're in media, you're in a way different business than you were even just five years ago.
Every morning my neighborhood coffee shop serves me a cup of joe slipped into a heat sleeve emblazoned with an ad for "The Jay Leno Show" taglined "COMEDY AT 10. IT'S ABOUT TIME." Only problem is, not only are there already other comedy options at 10, but comedy as a product/niche has changed dramatically since Leno first got in the game. Comedy is now ubiquitous -- on Comedy Central and other cable networks, and all over the web. Comedy is always on.

3. If you're going to suddenly and radically change a large proportion of your product line-up (like, say, 33.3% of your weekday prime-time schedule), there's -- surprise! -- going to be a ripple effect on your overall brand.
For starters, NBC no longer has good spots on its schedule for the type of hard-hitting dramas that once helped define its brand identity. Witness the recent cancellation of "Southland," created by former "NYPD Blue" writer Ann Biderman.

2. Allowing one outsize personality to hijack your brand identity is generally not a good idea.
Fox News is actually grappling with this phenomenon right now, by accident, in regard to Glenn Beck; he blew up way bigger than anyone expected, and thanks to his noisy, loony, weepy schtick, he's effectively supplanted Bill O'Reilly (who's almost statesmanly by comparison) as the face of the network, so now Fox News seems, to a lot more people than ever, to be the Crazy People News Network. NBC, likewise, has been hijacked by Jay Leno -- except NBC invited the hijacking by insisting that Leno was going to single-handedly revolutionize prime time. Now NBC, which used to be the premiere network for smart comedy (and still has gems like "The Office" and "30 Rock") and had a storied history as a home for great drama, is both the Not Funny Enough Network and the Not Dramatic Enough Network.

1. Jay Leno is a helluva lot more annoying when you're still wide awake.

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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco

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