Jay Leno in prime time: death knell for quality network TV?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how corporate entertainment might change if the economy tanks much more than it already has — and that seems likely to happen — and how we consumers of both corporate and independent entertainment might change the way we consume it. (More on that in another post.) Of all the things I’ve been turning over in my head, none of them comes close to NBC’s announcement this week that the network is moving Jay Leno from a late-night slot to one in prime time.
That’s right: Jay Leno is going to own the 10pm slot every weeknight. In Fall 2009, NBC will turn over its airwaves to the most middle-of-the-road, run-of-the-mill talk-show host imaginable, for an hour, Monday through Friday.
Not at all unexpectedly, The New York Times is all over this in such a way that completely misinterprets what this means, and in such a way that completely misunderstands how people are getting their entertainment these days.
The replacement of more conventional scripted series with a program featuring Mr. Leno, who has been the host of “The Tonight Show” on NBC since 1992, is indicative of how seriously the broadcasters are rethinking longtime business models as mass media fragment and consumers gain unprecedented power to avoid and skip commercials.
This is “rethinking”? This is going to make people stop skipping commercials?
Ah, well, it won’t matter if people skip commercials, because the commercials will be part of the show:
Another appeal of the new Leno show, Mr. Spengler said, is the ability to integrate brands and products into the content, which is known as branded entertainment.
“The Tonight Show” has long afforded sponsors a chance to do that, dating to the days when hosts like Johnny Carson, Steve Allen and Jack Paar delivered commercials for products like Alpo dog food and Polaroid cameras. Recently, Mr. Leno has worked on branded entertainment with “Tonight” advertisers including Dockers, Garmin and Klondike.
“We look forward to sitting down” with NBC executives, Mr. Spengler said, “and finding smart ways to elevate sponsor brands.”
Now, I realize that TV shows have to be paid for somehow, but is this really the answer when it’s rampant consumerism — as represented by the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses housing bubble and the credit-card bubble that’s about to burst — that caused our economic problems in the first place?
Of course, we needn’t worry that Leno will rock any boats regarding the condition our society finds itself in today:
“And you can count on Leno to be positive,” he added. “It’s not going to be controversial and it’s not going to be tasteless.” Such considerations are important to marketers that eschew buying commercials during contentious or polarizing programs.
So, nothing Leno says or does will, in any way, upset those advertisers, whose hard sells of crap we don’t need will support this program. Good to know. Not that I was ever a fan of Leno’s, but with satire and informed commentary off the table, there’s no reason for me to watch this new Leno show, ever. And I suspect that will be much the case with many people my age. Not that we were watching much of NBC’s offerings these days anyway. Even Heroes is sucking hard.
“The model for network television is basically broken,” said Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer at the GroupM media division of WPP, primarily because of “huge, huge contractions” in the number of viewers who watch scripted prime-time fare.
One plus Mr. Scanzoni sees is that the skit-and-shtick format of “The Jay Leno Show” would fit a growing trend of viewers being “more inclined to snack on television programs,” he said, “instead of digesting them week in and week out.”
Network TV is broken, but “skit-and-shtick” is not the answer: smarter, better-written, cheaper-to-produce scripted dramas are the answer. The reason we’re not watching scripted drama isn’t because we don’t like scripted drama: it’s because we don’t like scripted drama that sucks. Like with Heroes. If it were well-written, we’d be watching it more than we are. If it didn’t rely so much on expensive FX over quality storytelling, we’d be watching it more than we are. But the people who would like to be watching Heroes are absolutely not going to tune in instead to see Jay Leno spouting lame jokes and hawking Alpo. Seriously, is NBC fucking kidding us? Or is NBC so wildly deluded that they think this is going to work?
Oh, sure, people will watch this new Jay Leno show. Old people. Not that I have anything against old people — far from it. But as a business model for building an audience that’s going to stay with you through the coming decades, programming that is not of interest to anyone under 60 isn’t exactly the smartest way to go about it.
What we’re seeing here is not NBC paving the way to a new future — it’s NBC acknowledging that network TV as we have known it since the beginning of network TV is dying, and will likely be dead within mere years. Mass audiences no longer exist, not for weekly or daily TV shows. Now and into the next few decades, it’s gonna be all about niche audiences, and about not relying on even those niche audiences to all watch your show at the same time. The Net, DVR, DVD: this is where it’s at. Time-shifiting is now the default. Mom and Dad and the Beaver are no longer all gathering round the big enormous 12-inch screen to watch Howdy Doody or Wagon Train anymore. The sooner the networks accept this, the sooner we can move on to creating the next paradigm… or at least to accepting it.
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