The whole Leno/Conan/Tonight Show sideshow of the past couple of weeks has inevitably started settling down. Still, this clumsy episode provided the general public a glimpse of the decision-making and strategic skills of the braintrusts at network television. Even a casual reading of the various stories revealed the corrosive aspect of huge profit margins on cogent business leadership.
I’m old enough to remember when Jay Leno truly was funny. My wife and I saw him at the Park West in the mid-80’s and he was the Bruce Springsteen of comedy, working for three side-splitting hours. His material wasn’t particularly dangerous and he didn’t work blue so he seemed a natural for national TV. But Leno proved too apt a pupil; at the behest of the network, his style mutated into fawning sycophantism. The result was too depressing to watch.
The same fate befell Conan during his short term on The Tonight Show. His trademark silliness seemed muted somehow, his joyful good-natured anarchy toned down, at least until his final week when it reappeared brilliantly as he gleefully pretended to blow NBC’s money on silly comedy bits.
Why do network executives insist on putting condoms over their comedian’s material? Why must they squelch the original voices that earned the big contracts in the first place? Of course it has something to do with protecting the bottomline, of insulating the network against angry local affiliates and outraged sponsors, but there is definitely something more.
When you’ve spent years out in Burbank, sniffing your own exhaust (along with another six lane’s worth during your morning commute), you lose touch with reality. Consider this mind-boggling quote from Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment. In his bit of highly-published spin, he claimed Leno would be competitive immediately because his image wasn’t hurt much. After all, “…Middle America doesn’t have any clue what’s going on behind the scenes.”
Could someone please tell “West Coast” Jeff that we Middle Americans have access to this odd little platform called the internet and that, like some kind of magical box, it delivers news and information to us almost instantly? And the internet’s news is unhindered by the legal limitations of network news, so it’s far juicier, far more salacious and far more behind-the-scenes than even Access Hollywood or Entertainment Tonight.
Forget YouTube, forget illegal filesharing, forget pirated cable as the primary reasons network television is in trouble. Those are merely symptoms. The real source of the issue is far simpler. TV network executives don’t respect their audience. And as any advertising professional can tell you, the quickest way to lose a client is to demonstrate disrespect for them.
By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79