Open Mic

Jeff Gaspin’s Hollywood Blind Spot and Why the Leno/Conan Plan Was Destined to Fail

Chuck Ross Posted January 27, 2010 at 2:50 PM

Jeff Gaspin is a likable man.

Furthermore, Gaspin comes across as a particularly forthcoming high-ranking TV executive, not as ego-protective as many in similar positions.

As we’ve noted here before , at a recent gathering earlier this month of those of us who cover the TV beat, he gave us a pretty detailed chronological account of the Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien latenight situation.

At the gathering, known as the TCA tour, Gaspin said the reason for coming up with the plan for putting Leno at 11:30 p.m., followed by Conan just after midnight was based on the fact NBC was facing an affiliate revolt, and the desire to keep both Leno and Conan at NBC. That revolt had to do with the ratings for "The Jay Leno Show" at 10 p.m. being so low that it was hurting the ratings of  local affiliates' late newscasts. Thus, Gaspin said, a significant number of TV stations were threatening to pre-empt the Leno program.

Now, with Conan out of the building , Gaspin's added that the other reason he wanted to shake-up latenight is that Conan’s ratings were nowhere near what Leno’s were for most of the years that Leno hosted “The Tonight Show.”

In fact, Gaspin told James Hibberd of The Hollywood Reporter’s Live Feed blog, in a separate interview the other day, that “I did want to keep both [Leno and O’Brien]. But if you look at the business of it as a practical matter, when I knew I was going to have to make a change at 10 p.m., I looked at the facts. "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien" was (anticipated) to lose many millions of dollars at 11:35 p.m. If you looked at the ratings, affiliates were down 14%, ‘The Tonight Show’ was down 49% -- this is year-to-year for full fourth quarter. As a practical matter, it made sense to try and come up with some other formula for late-night.”

Let’s leave aside the argument some have made that O’Brien needed more time to build a bigger audience, or that NBC ad sales needed more time to perhaps figure out a way to get more money from advertisers who targeted the younger audience that Conan was attracting. Or the argument that Conan's numbers suffered because of the low numbers Leno was getting leading into affiliates' local newscast, and the domino effect that was having.

In another interview, Tuesday, at the annual convention of the National Association of Television Program Executives in Las Vegas, during a session in which Gaspin was questioned by Ben Grossman, the editor-in chief of B&C, Gaspin added even more to his account of the Leno/Conan saga.

Most particularly he said, “I probably underestimated the emotion of everything that went on.” Gaspin said he went to all parties concerned with “a very logical, rational plan. I explained it to the press. I wasn’t trying to hide anything. And I think I underestimated the emotional impact it had on Conan, in particular.”

Earlier in the interview he spoke about how the incident had tarnished NBC’s image, and how that surprised him as well. Given how much more important, on a percentage basis, the cable networks are to NBC Universal’s bottom line, compared to the NBC TV network, he said he’s amazed at how much more ink the NBC network gets from the press compared to the cable properties, and how much more the Hollywood community cares about what the broadcast network is doing versus the cable networks.

Kudos to Gaspin for realizing what surprises him.

The problem for NBC is that these things did indeed surprise him.

Perhaps this will make the point more clear. During the TCA tour a few weeks ago, one of the TV reporters asked Gaspin a very key question. First, the reporter stated that a lot of the TV reporters and critics around the country had said and written that the Leno 10 o’clock show probably would not work, and that the late news at many NBC affiliates would suffer the consequences of lower ratings. So, this reporter wanted to know, if he and his fellow TV reporters had anticipated this result, why hadn’t the brain trust at NBC.

Again, I’m paraphrasing, but Gaspin said that NBC (and the affiliates) had done research that indicated they’d be OK.

You see the pattern here. “Research said.” “Business conditions dictated.” “Logic indicates.” “Rational plan.” "It's practical." “Bottom line.” It’s purely the business without the showmanship. It’s MBA-speak. It’s the quantification of TV, and it’s been the downfall of NBC.

All one has to do is look across the dial at CBS to see how to do it right. What makes Leslie Moonves the quintessential choice to run what is primarily a network TV company is that he’s got programming in his DNA. Yes, of course he needs to be—and is—mindful of the bottom line, but more importantly he gets the emotion of the medium—both the emotional attachment of audience to show and performer, and the emotional makeup of those who create and perform in the shows.

I say “more importantly” because TV really is more an art than a science, and if you understand what is important to and motivates the creative community, then you increase your chances of success exponentially, which, if you’re smart about it, can translate to a better bottom line.#