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Jaypocalypse Now: What Is NBC Thinking?

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If the reports are true—and it increasingly looks like it—that NBC is planning to send back Jay Leno to 11:30, it raises a lot of questions: Will Conan stay? What does NBC program in primetime? What about Carson Daly? For this post, I’ll stick to one: Why now?

What’s most surprising about the move—again if reports hold true—is that NBC apparently plans to make the change after the Olympics, in less than two months. (Though nothing is official, and it is still possible this doesn’t happen, on this timetable anyway.) Say what you want about the Leno move, at least the network gave itself nine months to get ready. Changing five solid hours of primetime plus its latenight lineup would be tough enough for a strong network, with high-performing shows to use as lead-ins. You may have noticed that NBC is not a strong network.

Yet it is evidently about to throw a volleyball onto the chess table of its schedule anyway. Why so fast?  Some possible reasons:

To avoid paying anyone off. Actually, this is more about why this move than about the timing. But NBC has contractual commitments to both Leno and Conan that most likely compel massive payoffs if either is sacked early. Its solution may please no one—Conan fans, or Jay fans who would like him to have Tonight back—but it may well be saving NBC tens of millions. (And maybe keeping either host from jumping ship.) So the network may have decided to…

Rip the Band-Aid Off. As everyone noted before the Leno show launched, filling in the five-night crater of a failed show would be ugly regardless. And with almost no other successful shows to build new hits off of, NBC’s 10 p.m. may do no better, or worse, in the short term. Maybe better just to hit rock-bottom now, so that whatever the network unveils for fall has nowhere to go but up. (It can’t get worse. Or can it?) And it may have been thus prodded by…

Comcast. NBC scheduled Leno as a cost-saving measure, on the theory that a cheap show five nights a week would leave NBC in the black even if its ratings were no better than Jay’s on the Tonight Show. To be fair, those are the ratings Jay got on average, and though I haven’t seen the books, the show may very well run at a profit. Technically. But NBC’s new-owner-to-be Comcast may well have wanted a network trying to grow, not manage its decline. It probably saw the ripple effects on late-night, affiliate newscasts and the rest of prime time. And it may now also be concerned about…

Retransmission. Remember how NBC Universal head Jeff Zucker kept saying broadcast networks had to change, because they didn’t have cable’s business model of getting paid by cable carriers? Well, at New Year’s, Fox’s Rupert Murdoch tried another way: by strongarming Time Warner Cable into paying “retransmission” fees to carry its free Fox network. If the broadcast networks have a shot at getting paid cable-style, they have more incentive to build value. Not to mention…

Online and other TV technology. Comcast, a cable company worried about services like Hulu cutting into its business, is interested in programming that it can sell for cash money online. A hit drama—if NBC can make them—may have more potential there than Leno. NBC sold Leno to advertisers as “TiVo-proof,” and that may have been too true: few people watched him on DVR. And a show with that short a shelf life may not be very monetizable online. And then you had the whole problem with…

Affiliates. As I said, to be fair to NBC, Leno actually did seem to fall within expectations ratings-wise, if on the low end. (Now NBC’s hopes for Leno—that’s another story.) He beat other networks’ reruns in December though he was usually third against original programming—like NBC had said. But while NBC said it would try to structure Leno’s show to give local news at 11 a strong lead-in, I think the network must have suspected affiliates would hurt; it just seemed to think it could, basically, get away with telling them to screw off. Nope. Local stations were grumbling publicly, and we might have seen the disaster scenario of groups of them banding together to move their news to 10. (Or, as commenter Tom Shaw notes in an earlier post, to kibosh the Comcast sale.)

The irony is that, short-term at least, affiliates could do even worse with what NBC puts up at 10 p.m.—a fading Law & Order, Dateline, rushed-to-air new series with poor lead-ins. NBC’s move could halt the bleeding, or open another artery.

The further irony is that the problems NBC created The Jay Leno Show to address still exist. The business climate is no better for broadcast networks. The numbers add up no better. There may, in fact, not be room for three broadcast networks airing three hours of expensive original programming anymore. But NBC, like many media comanies, is caught between the old business model, which isn’t working, and the next one, which is unknown.

Now NBC gets to try the next next thing, once it figures out that is. And will get to find out if that thing works rather quickly.