My print TIME column this week, it should surprise no one, is also about the Jaypocalypse at NBC. Since it needed to close on deadline—and who knew who was going to be working where by the time it came off the presses—I used the column to big-picture the issue.
Namely: NBC’s problem is pretty much the problem of newspapers, or magazines, or any old media company in the new media age. The network, like print journalism, is “caught between an old business model that is no longer working and a new one that hasn’t yet been invented.”
As we’ve been over (and over) here on Tuned In,The Jay Leno Show was created first and foremost as a business device: a cost-cutting measure meant, essentially, to downsize NBC like an old Big-Three automaker. See, for a much longer discussion, my Jay Leno cover from last summer. The cover line, “Jay Leno Is the Future of TV,” if you apply it to Jay Leno the person, may either look stupid or prescient, in the sense that Leno will apparently be on TV until he dies. But the story itself is about The Jay Leno Show as a sign of the future of TV, for better or worse, as a business of smaller audiences and diminished expectations.
The show worked for NBC insofar as it was cheap. But it also looked cheap. And that put NBC in the bind of newspapers cutting staff and coverage: when you cut corners to adapt to a new era, you alienate an audience that liked the old era, and the spiral deepens.
That said, I think a lot of people—TV critics, executives at other big broadcast networks—would like to see the failure of NBC’s experiment as a sign that TV can happily go back to its old ways. Which would be nice. Much of what went wrong with The Jay Leno Show was an abysmal failure of simple execution: bad conception, bad casting, bad television. Maybe all TV needs to do is program more high-quality entertainment and the audiences will come.
But the business circumstances that led to the Leno show—audience fragmentation, dwindling ad revenue, DVRs, and so on—still exist. To me, Jay Leno is a little like Katie Couric, and not just in being a star who switched time-slots. Ratings-wise, maybe Katie Couric was the wrong choice. But that doesn’t meant that the right choice would have changed the larger picture, that evening news is declining. It just would have given CBS a shot at putting someone else into third place.
In other words, in a declining business, you can’t necessarily cut your way to survival. But that doesn’t mean you can necessarily grow your way to survival either. For someone who works in the magazine business, of course, this is not a heartening conclusion. But hey—that’s why we put a bomb in the illustration!