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

Jan 11, 2010

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. #

10 Comments

  1. I am a stock holder of GE and have lost a fair amount of money. When I originally heard about the Leno switch to 10PM I said it wouldn,t work, primarily because I felt O’Brien wasn’t strong enough to carry the 11:30 spot against Letterman-disclosure I do not like O’Brien and feel he is not in the league of the past late night hosts on either channel- but this is about a business decision. So it didn’t work and I wonder how come I knew it wouldn’t pan out with no professional TV or entertainment background and the high paid executives of NBC could make such a bad business decision. People have been fired for less and I don’t care that O’Brien’s nose is out of joint-he failed in his new spot and should be demoted(reassigned) or terminated as shoud those executives who made the decision.

  2. Sounds like you have your mind made up that it’s all about Comcast, and nothing will knock you off that viewpoint. So why have a debate at all? You’ve made your decision. I happen to believe Gaspin. But neither you nor I will know for sure until he writes his memoir, and even then you’ll call him a liar.

  3. Chuck,
    I both like and appreciate the points that you bring up in your article and believe it or not, am rapidly becoming a fan of Mr. Gaspin’s for he does not seem to be talking the NBC “Zucker Talk” (read: BS).
    He seems to be accepting responsibility, taking the leadership role and more so, action in turning NBC around. Now if they would just get rid of Mr. Zucker, the network would probably regain the public’s trust in quality programming.
    To me, Jay Leno is going to blow his “nice guy” image by supplanting Conan who almost certainly will not accept starting a half hour later.
    The one thing that no one is talking about is what happens if Leno fails at 11:35, given the possible pr nightmare that will ensue for pushing Conan out, do the affiliates take this time back for syndicated programming following their late news? Hmmmmmm.

  4. If it happens, Leno will end up in third behind Conan (FOX), Kimmel and Dave in every demo but old, the one NBC cares about least.
    They did the right thing, however tough, to let someone go before they needed to to make room for the next –just like Cronkite/Rather.
    Then they did something ridiculous, all to save money and worry that Jay could hurt them short term somewhere else. No Conan will hurt them for a decade or two, unless they reverse and follow through on Conan’s contract and show Jay the door.

  5. If a third of affiliates preempted the program, it would have no longer been “profitable” because a third of American TV households could not have seen the program. And that would equal much lower ratings. An affiliate uprising and threats of preemption of the program caused NBC to “re-think” having Leno at 10pm weeknights.

  6. The one piece of “evidence” that is being ignored in all the Leno-O’Brien-NBC chaos is that the goofy, immature Conan O’Brien, nice guy or not, just isn’t all that entertaining. Yes, he skews young, but young isn’t everything, especially in the House that Johnny Built. In jumping through hoops to pacify O’Brien by giving him the Tonight Show, NBC simply chased young demographics straight off a cliff. Letterman has to be thrilled.
    A final related thought is that NBC could really use Grant Tinker’s leadership and wisdom about now. As CEO of NBC, he was about as opposite the current NBC top management as the mind can imagine. Too bad NBC (and more specifically GE) never learned the lessons Tinker taught.

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  8. Ron, just as our parents didn’t understand our music, sometimes we’re not going to understand our kids’ comedy.
    Funny is different for different ages. What you find funny someone younger may find corny and quaint.
    Jay, to many younger Americans, is nothing but a clap act, where the proper aural response to his humor can be heard more from one’s hands than their mouths.
    I personally don’t laugh much at Conan, but I sure get what others see as funny. But remember, not many 50 year olds understood why we loved the Beatles back in the 60′s; same’s going on here. The references are different, the point of view… and it’s nuts for the NBC execs to not reach into the future and keep it instead of reaching back to their past.
    if I were Comcast I’d be over the moon angry at keeping Jay and ditching Conan.

  9. Well NBC top management, if this was my company and the mistake was made on my part I would do something completely different. Due to the failure of the orginal plan I would do this and here is the reason why, first were in the business to make money correct? 1.) Leave Conan where he is at develop the future. 2.) Move Leno after Conan and sell it to him why. I’ll bet you my last dollar that ratings would go up with this because it promotes both. Here is what to consider, what does a great football team do when they have recruited there starting QB but also have a great QB that doesn’t have life cycle the TEAM needs to be successful. His role is to develop the new QB for the TEAM. This cause and effect lets everyone win, especially NBC. Your loyal audience will wait 1/2 hour to see Leno by also seeing Conan! Pay Leno on its success, NBC management is the real winner. Sincerely, Tim Christopher

  10. It seems to all come back to this…NBC’s short-sighted longterm decision in 2004. Why didnt’t they just approach Conan before he ended his Latenight run in Feb 2009 and say “listen, we bungled this badly, 11:35pm is one of the only time periods were winning, we’ll get you in there eventually Conan but it’ll have to wait…oh, and here’s $10 million dollars for your wait”.

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