question of the day: NBC cancels prime-time Leno: why did it take so long?

Anyone could have said that moving Jay Leno, America’s class clown, to prime time from late night was a bad idea — in fact, lots of us did say it. And NBC finally caught on:

PASADENA, Calif. – NBC said Sunday it decided to pull the plug on the Jay Leno experiment when some affiliate stations considered dropping the nightly prime-time show, and the network is waiting to hear if Leno and “Tonight” host Conan O’Brien accept its new late-night TV plans.

“The Jay Leno Show,” which airs at 10 p.m. EST, will end with the Feb. 12 beginning of the Winter Olympics, said NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin. Leno would return to his former 11:35 p.m. slot after the Olympics ended under the network’s new plan, which also calls for O’Brien to retain his job with “Tonight” but at the later hour of 12:05 a.m. EST.

(You know who I feel sorry for? Conan.)

One interesting tidbit from the Associated Press report linked above:

Gaspin said that despite lower ratings for NBC at 10 p.m. compared to last year, the network was making money off the show.

But affiliates were upset that it was leading fewer viewers into their late news programs, costing them significant advertising revenue. Some affiliates told NBC in December they would go public soon about their complaints if a change wasn’t made, or even take Leno’s show off the air.

So cheaper is good, as long as it’s not so cheap that even a tiny audience can make a show profitable. Because audience really is key. Nice note from Andrew Leonard at Salon:

“The Jay Leno Show” turned out be one of least DVR-ed shows on television. But not because viewers were afraid to miss anything in-the-moment. They just didn’t like the show. To make matters worse, instead of watching Leno, they appeared to be using the time slot as their preferred opportunity to watch other shows that they had previously DVR-ed.

The whole idea of coming up with a “DVR-proof” strategy betrays a remarkable failure on the part of NBC to understand the changing media landscape. The first goal should be to be popular. One sign of popularity is that audiences will be eager to DVR your content. That’s the price you pay. Viewers have simply too many entertainment choices to choose from today for it to make any sense to think otherwise.

Why did it take so long for NBC to realize the error of their ways? And what stupid idea will they come up with to replace Leno?

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Mon, Jan 11, 2010 11:39am

The Leonard note suggests that NBC is still chasing the Neilsens – presumably because that’s what the advertisers are still looking at. In turn – assuming the advertisers are not entirely stupid – that’s because the people watching live are pretty close to being the only ones who still see the commercials.

If they had actually found an audience for this talk-show, and if they had been right about people wanting to watch it live rather than delayed, it would have been a whole lot more profitable than anything else on the air. They may have lost this gamble, but at least they had the guts to try it – unlike the other networks which are sticking their heads in the sand and pretending the old advertising revenue model is still feasible.

(I don’t have a DVR – or a TV – myself, but I’d have thought the obvious thing to do is start watching 18 minutes after the start of the program, and skip commercials until you’re up in real-time by the end of it…)

Mon, Jan 11, 2010 11:47am

My guess would be some sort of misguided loyality to Leno. Same reason I believe they keep giving the shaft to Conan, inspite of the fact he has always been funnier. In a personal gallop poll nobody I asked thought Leno was better.

Mon, Jan 11, 2010 11:59am

Aren’t class clowns typically funny?

Mon, Jan 11, 2010 12:42pm

Class clowns can be funny, but just as often they keep mugging for attention, and eventually everyone gets tired of listening to them. Smaller Doses.

Mon, Jan 11, 2010 2:28pm

screw Leno, Craig Ferguson all the way!

Mon, Jan 11, 2010 3:27pm

As an older American, I think the anti-Leno bias has an ageist tinge. True, Leno doesn’t have any edge or any actual originality. But many of my fellow boomers look at Jay as comfort food – his comedy is the comedy of our youth (unrefreshed since the 70’s) So Conan, who is certainly more creative, doesn’t hit the same buttons, and as a result, has been losing to Dave (who is happy to repeat the same jokes every day for maximum comfort).

Mon, Jan 11, 2010 4:18pm

@misterb: aren’t you a bit embarrassed by the fact that you have no problem admitting that you’re going along in the same old groove (not groovy) all the time as far as humor goes? Boomers used to be proud to the point of arrogance of their go forward attitude and trying new things, distrusting the old and the established. expand your mind, man. Leno is old and tired and not funny; Letterman is just a cranky bore. i thought they had moved Leno to 10:00 because most of his core audience couldn’t stay up past the 11:00 news anymore. i don’t like talk shows in general… but i like Colbert and Stewart and Craig Ferguson… sharp, edgy and vital.

Dr Rocketscience
Dr Rocketscience
Mon, Jan 11, 2010 6:08pm

I was going to say that it’s because, like generals fighting “the last war,” TV execs are notoriously several years behind viewer trends. But I don’t think that’s it.

Rather, I think it’s cause the show was super cheap to produce. Plus, whoever signed off on the idea in the first place was just desperate to keep Leno int he stable.

bats :[
bats :[
Tue, Jan 12, 2010 10:32am

Craig Ferguson for President! (No, wait. I don’t think that can happen. Craig Ferguson in an earlier time slot!)