Open Mic

Behind the Leno Move: Why NBC is Suddenly So Interested In the Brotherly Love of Its Affiliates

Chuck Ross Posted January 11, 2010 at 3:27 AM

Tags: affiliates, Conan O'Brien, Jay Leno, Jeff Gaspin, Jimmy Fallon, late night, NBCU, reasons for Leno cancelation

Aaron Barnhart, the TV Critic at the Kansas City Star and our longtime colleague, raised the issue immediately in Sunday’s Q&A between TV critics and reporters and Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment: Since the reason NBC was giving for cancelling Leno’s primetime show was complaints from its affiliates, how much of the decision to listen to these affiliates was because of the pending deal for Comcast to take a majority share of NBCU, and NBCU’s desire to keep all of the players it's involved with enthusiastic about the deal?

Here’s what Gaspin said in response: “Absolutely zero. They [Comcast] have nothing to do with business decisions we make, and they won’t until there is regulatory approval. Right now all I’m doing is my job. All we’re doing is our jobs and not thinking what might be a year from now.”

When asked later by TVWeek if he wasn’t personally thinking about the Comcast deal at all when making this decision, Gaspin reiterated, “Honestly, not one bit. I’m making the decision that is best for NBC. My current bosses and my future bosses will judge me based on those decisions. I only know how to make decisions based on my own experience and the situation I have to work with.”

Interesting. Long ago I was taught that in most things business, follow the money. And I’m sure that Gaspin, an MBA who first joined NBC in its finance department, would also likely say that’s a smart way to look at most business decisions.

So let’s delve a little further into his explanation as to why NBC has canceled Jay Leno’s primetime show as of next month, and proposes that instead Leno do a half-hour show at 11:35 pm, followed by Conan O’Brien and an hour of “The Tonight Show,” which would in turn be followed by an hour of Jimmy Fallon.

The sole reason for NBC deciding to blow up its schedule almost immediately and rush other programming into 10 pm is because it was facing, basically, an affiliate revolt, Gaspin said.

Witness this exchange between a TV reporter and Gaspin on Sunday:

TV Reporter: “Jeff, couldn’t you have struck a deal with the affiliates? Sorta said guys, we don’t have anything else in the pipeline, let’s see how this plays out for the rest of the [TV] year and we’ve got all these dramas in development. Guys, Jay’s probably not going to be on at 10 in the fall, so let’s just show a little more patience, we’ll work with you guys, but let’s not blow it all up and go crazy.”

Gaspin: “I can promise you that all the options that I thought of we discussed and in the end I made this decision.”

TV Reporter: “What were some of your other options?”
Gaspin: “You can guess what some of them were. You’ve written about a lot of them.”

Similarly, there was this exchange:

Another TV Reporter: “You hinted that [Leno’s show] was acceptable for the network, you were making money, and it was really the affiliate issue. But was it really? Could have you lived through the rest of the season with a 1.5 rating at 10 o’clock had [some of the affiliates ] not had 30% dropoff for the local news?”

Gaspin: “Yes. I would have preferred it. As opposed to crashing a schedule? I have shows to launch out of the Olympics. I would have much preferred to concentrate on launching shows, and trying to create new hit shows than now trying to explain to people why we have a new schedule. So I would have much preferred to have waited to September. I would have preferred to have seen the summer ratings.”

The Reporter: “But was it a given that you were going to drop this experiment by August anyway?”

Gaspin: “I had to signal to affiliates that we were willing to make a change. You never know what would have happened between signaling them and actually [having] had to make the decision. Maybe something would have happened that would have allowed me to go back to them. But I’d have to make too many assumptions there. I just don’t think it’s useful.”

Then there were the following few Qs&As:

A Reporter’s Question: “Did you get a sense of how many affiliates were going to start preempting [the Leno show if it continued in primetime]?”

Gaspin: “There was about a third. There was about a third that were really hurt by [their local news ratings after Leno’s show] and were incredibly concerned.”

Question: “Contractually would they be able to preempt the show?”

Gaspin: “That’s a question more for the lawyers than for me. It becomes more of a public relations issue than a contractual issue. Do you want to have your affiliates, your partners, constantly saying ‘This is killing me’? It just was going to damage Jay, and it was going to damage NBC. So regardless of what legally the position was, this was going to continue to be a PR nightmare.”

A few moments later there was this question: “Could you have waited until [affiliates] started [preempting]?”

Gaspin: “Before they preempted I believe they would have been talking publicly, so that’s what I was trying to avoid, not so much the preemptions.”

OK, let’s review: Gaspin says the only reason he’s yanked the Leno show in primetime is because about a third of his affiliates may have started preempting the show. And that it wasn’t the actual preemptions that would have bothered him, but the bad publicity that would accompany just the threat of preemptions. Furthermore, this publicity would be a public relations nightmare and would damage NBC, Gaspin says.

Hmm. I’m neither an MBA nor a lawyer—though I haven’t spent a lifetime watching “The Defenders” and “Perry Mason” and “LA Law” and “Boson Legal” and “Judge Judy” and Ben Matlock for nothing.

Come on. NBC, the once proud peacock, has gotten so much bad publicity in the last few years as the architect of its own demise that it’s the Tiger Woods of media.

Still, it appears that this potential affiliate revolt over the Leno debacle was making NBC executives so nervous that their fingernails were starting to sweat, as Dan Rather used to say. But not about more bad publicity per se.

Yes, I think Gaspin has been very forthright in telling us the chronology of what’s gone on with the Leno situation, and his concerns as a good corporate citizen of NBCU.

But isn’t he kidding himself, ladies and gentlemen of the jury—and us as well—if he doesn’t think that an honest connecting of the dots inevitably and irrefutably leads to the conclusion that the reason NBC all of a sudden fears another “PR nightmare” right now is because they are indeed worried about the political fallout it could have on the Comcast deal.

Gaspin says he’s just doing his job and does not hear footsteps from Philadelphia. But clearly one of the jobs of a top executive at NBCU today is to ensure that the Comcast deal gets done, since management of NBCU and parent General Electric have said they believe that the consummation of the deal is in the best interests of the company.

As the saying goes, in life, timing is everything. And this is one of the few times in recent years that timing has given the advantage to the affiliates.

And for all of us who believe that the Leno primetime move was bad for TV, we’ll grab a break wherever we can get one. #