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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

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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  • funny, my first thought when seeing the headlines about this in the morning were: “well, it’s because Leno’s audience can’t stay awake past 11:00 anymore!”

  • also, incorporating the “product” into the show is as old as … radio at least, maybe even serialized novels. Burns & Allen did it with carnation… the Texaco radio hour did it… so, not only are the networks (NBC at this moment) going backwards to “variety” entertainment in prime time, but to product being part of the entertainment. well, at least we’ll know what’s being sold to us in a more blatant way. but if this is the new trend, what next? resurrecting Ed Sullivan in his mouldering shroud to host the new vaudeville show?

  • bitchen frizzy

    This idea is so incredibly old-fashioned. They’re basically planning to bring back the variety show format of the 1950’s and hoping… what? That it will somehow recapture past glory? Baffling.

    One thing that the big three networks will not come to terms with (too painful a reality, I guess) is that they do not have the captive audience they once had, when few Americans had more than a half-dozen channels to choose from. It doesn’t seem to cross their minds that sometimes shows succeeded in the past because there wasn’t anything better to watch.

  • MaryAnn

    also, incorporating the “product” into the show is as old as … radio at least, maybe even serialized novels.

    Absolutely. That was the beginning of the commercialization of our culture. It would be nice to see the end of it…

  • While useful for their cash reserves, television networks aren’t absolutely necessary to finance and distribute episodic dramas, anymore. Advertisers should simply pay production companies directly to have shows released free on the internet – both via YouTube and file sharing – with their watermark stamped in the bottom right-hand corner. Want to see the new Doctor Who episode? Fine, just download it from anywhere and ignore the translucent SCION logo in the bottom right-hand corner, the way we already ignore network logos… it’ll still do its job and worm Scion’s brand name into your subconscious, even if they don’t include a proper commercial in the program.

  • blake

    You think Jay Leno is the most “middle-of-the-road, run-of-the-mill talk-show host imaginable”

    I’m so glad you said that, I could never understand why he’s so popular in the US.

    Hey, maybe it’s because he’s “middle of the road.”
    Perhaps middle America go for that sort of thing. They don’t want to be challenged in their opinions or get gags that they might find questionable in taste.

    Jon Stewart really gets on my nerves.

  • Roger BW

    I’ve certainly seen blatant product placement in the various CSI shows, but the others I watch have mostly managed to avoid it so far.

    I think an important consideration is that the people making decisions at the networks don’t care about the next ten or twenty years – they care about what’s going to happen before the next set of quarterly results or shareholders’ meeting. American (and other) corporate law puts an absolute legal bar at the board level on any action other than maximising short-term profits. This inevitably filters down.

  • Jester

    You’re underestimating the appeal of this show to the “old people” demo, as well as the longevity it will have catering to that demo. The boomers are legion, the boomers are into “positive, non-controversial, non-tasteless”, and the boomers are into “snacking on TV”. Boomers will happily watch the same mediocre episode of House or CSI or Law and Order repeated over and over with slightly different plot points 263 times.

    Heroes, BSG, and other long-arc TV dramas are aimed at GenX. *We’re* the demanding ones. We’re the ones demanding TV on iPod screens and the ability to record four shows at once for later review. We’re the ones demanding webisodes and actual character growth. But we’re also the ones figuring out newer and better ways of excising advertising from our lives. But happily, we’re still a minority of the TV audience and with the exception of niche programming, can be safely ignored for the moment.

    Until my grandmother died in her mid-90s, she was glued to her TV. My mother is in her low 60s, will be retiring in two or three years, and already seems destined for my grandmother’s path. I can’t call her in the evenings without her already being busy watching some mediocre TV show. She’s got a good 20 or 30 years of TV watching ahead of her, and I suspect this Jay Leno tripe will be part of it.

    No, this show will do just fine, as will the current TV paradigm, at least until a critical mass of boomers pass on.

    Or does that make me cynical? ;-)

  • bitchen frizzy

    When it comes to the state of network television, it’s hard for one to be overly negative enough to be labeled cynical.

    You are missing some points, though. The ability and tendency of younger people to avoid advertising is precisely the reason why networks are using product placement and considering in-show advertising. That’s why their plans to bring back 50’s style variety shows – which have zero appeal to the advertising-avoidant younger audience that they want to reach with in-show advertising – is so mystifying.

    I don’t know about “House,” but “CSI” and “Law and Order” appeal to a younger demographic as well as baby boomers. Lots of people with interest in these shows have no interest in old-time talk shows – again, mystifying why the networks would confuse the two audiences.

    There are better examples than “Heroes” and “BSG”. “Lost,” for example, if it doesn’t lose most of its audience from being off the air for so long between seasons. “Heroes” is fading, and “BSG’s” appeal has been limited, to put it kindly.

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