January 7th, 2010
[Edit: now TMZ is reporting that the plan is for Leno to take over from Conan O’Brien at 11:30, either doing a half-hour show leading into Conan or a full-hour pushing the entire Late Night schedule back with it. As someone who likes Conan, this new is sad on a personal level, but it’s even more sad professionally. While NBC can’t entirely throw away what they’ve started, they apparently believe that they can turn back the clock as if nothing happened. However, they barely have the programming to schedule what they’ve currently got, so what are they going to do with five hours of primetime plus the hellstorm that will come with angering Conan (even if angering Leno by promoting Conan is what created this mess). It’s a move that, if true (as I tweeted, it’s odd that I trust TMZ on celebrity deaths as opposed to something ultimately trivial like this, but I’m skeptical), would demonstrate that NBC believes they are still caught up in correcting mistakes as opposed to turning those mistakes into successes, which isn’t easy but would be more preferable to the madness they’re stirring up if the rumour pans out. Either way, my analysis of what NBC should do below stands.]
There are a lot of problems at NBC. The network is suffering from poor leadership, poor performance from a large bulk of its lineup, and the black hole that is The Jay Leno Show. So when news broke today that a) NBC executives are seriously considering (aka rethinking) Leno’s future and b) Greg Grunberg is convinced that Heroes will definitely be returning for a fifth season, the immediate response amongst people who follow television closely is “Yes!” and “No!” respectively.
These reactions come with a strange sense of certainty, as if the idea that NBC isn’t entirely convinced Leno will be sticking around is a clear sign that he will be cancelled, and that Grunberg’s statement of Heroes “definitely” returning is a sign that the show won’t be deservedly canned before heading into the new year (not everyone reacted with such certainty, but I saw enough of it to make a note of it). And yet, while critically speaking both of these shows would easily be cancelled, NBC is in such a state of flux that any decision could upend whatever sense of stability they have: throwing Leno out too soon, or without attempting to revamp the show first, could anger affiliates/shareholders just as much as pretending nothing is wrong, and cancelling Heroes (which remains a worldwide franchise for the network) could create enough chaos to justify keeping the creatively dead show on the air.
The problems for NBC right now are so great that I don’t put anything past them, and while I have my own opinions about how these two situations will resolve themselves (which I’ll discuss below the fold) I think that NBC is trapped between a rock and a hard place: they’re at the point where accepting defeat isn’t an option as it would only further deflate their reputation, even if it results in a slight uptick in their ratings, as there are simply too many people they need to appease to start over from scratch without damaging those relationships.
Because NBC needs more than a Nielsen point to bounce back.
The Jay Leno Show is currently trapped in negotiations between the network (who, financially, claims to be happy with Leno’s performance), the affiliates (who, having suffered ratings drops due to the terrible lead-in, are less than happy), and Jay Leno (who would like to keep getting a paycheck, even if he doesn’t necessarily need to). While I’d love to suggest that viewers (or, more accurately, non-viewers who would like to be able to turn the channel to NBC between 10 and 11) have a place at the table, the fact is that we don’t have a say: while our hypothetical viewing patterns are part of the equation, the network and the affiliates are worried about their bottom lines, and they don’t care what goes in those time slots so long as it is making them money. If that could involve Jay Leno, it would validate NBC’s decision, please the affiliates (who probably like Jay Leno, just only when he’s airing after them) and likely make Leno quite happy as well. What viewers want really isn’t part of the equation, because NBC’s damage control is less with the audience and more with the perception that they are a network in crisis behind the scenes, which is something that a vast majority of viewers don’t usually see.
This is backwards in a lot of ways, you’re right – they should be worried about selling themselves to the viewers who are actually going to watch their shows, as opposed to the shareholders/critics/interested parties who fully understand how messed up things are behind the scenes, especially since what pleases viewers will probably please them as well. However, NBC can’t course correct that quickly: they committed themselves to the financial bottom line with Leno, and they can’t just back down from that when they have nothing to replace it with. When they have an idea of what they have for pilots for 2010, then they can consider more radical changes, but in the interim all they can do is play with the cards they have in their hand: folding is not an option, as it will only be read as further weakness (especially if their backup plan were to perform worse than Leno, which is entirely possible).
If I was in charge of the situation, I’d come back after the Olympics with a revamped Jay Leno Show that airs on two nights (Tuesdays and Thursdays) and which heavily features the talent from the shows which air before it. Leno’s Tuesday show, which has been performing well behind The Biggest Loser, features updates on the progress of the “At Home” challenge for the eliminated contestants, as well as appearances by trainers Bob and Jillian, in addition to a few of Jay’s traditional comedy segments. On Thursday, meanwhile, Leno’s show could feature some of the comedians/talent from NBC’s Thursday comedy lineup alongside Jay’s usual blend of comedy – while some viewers, myself included, might resist sitting through Leno to get to say Aziz Ansari, I’d at least consider watching compared to the status quo. By offering thematic/talent links to the programs that air before it, Leno has the opportunity to draw in viewers who might otherwise change the channel (I think it would work especially well on Tuesdays).
NBC could easily fill out the rest of its schedule (bring back Friday Night Lights at 9pm on Mondays leading into Parenthood at 10, move Law and Order: SVU to Wednesdays at 10 and schedule a repeat or a news magazine against Idol, shift Law and Order to 10pm on Fridays and make Dateline two hours) in this strategy, while allowing for Leno to remain part of its future plans. Whatever NBC does, it needs to read as an adjustment rather than a knee jerk reaction, and this type of approach would show a clear understanding of where it performs best (Tuesdays) and where it could technically offer a thematic connection against older-skewing competition (Thursdays). Yes, it’s admitting that their attempts to make Jay topical and relevant at 10 were a failure, but I don’t think even NBC would argue that the show is working as they want it to (even if it’s bringing in numbers that aren’t putting them in the red).
As for Heroes, Greg Grunberg is speaking in entirely non-specific terms: everyone loves to talk about Heroes’ worldwide prestige and DVD sales (which, if I had to guess, have tapered off as of late – I’d love to see comparisons between the first three seasons), but the show is a creative bust and is generating absolutely zero buzz and some legitimately awful numbers for the network. And while NBC might have been unwilling to risk angering fans by providing no closure after the show’s first season, the show has fallen to the point now where they could easily cancel it and probably only anger some international affiliates who have yet to come to terms with how terrible the show is performing overall (in other words, foreign networks as clueless as NBC). So Grunberg’s certain terms are anything but certain, which leaves the door open for our prayers to be answers and for Heroes to get the axe.
I don’t expect that’s going to happen, both because I think NBC has to be worried about its international franchise prospects and because I do think they like part of what Heroes offers them even in its anemic state. If I were a betting man, I’d suggest we’ll see Heroes wrapped up in a six-part miniseries in the Fall which promises a return to the show’s core premises in an effort to lure back older viewers with the promise of an event (likely airing in three two-hour segments in November Sweeps rather than over six weeks). The conclusions of that Miniseries would then leave room for NBC to build a more sustainable, but similarly marketable, series built around the show’s characters: I believe NBC wants to remain in the Hayden Panettiere business, so I think a midseason series built around Claire which downplays the serialized elements of the series in favour of the “Hot Young Blonde with Superpowers” elements has the potential to bring in new viewers unfamiliar with the mythology and extend the Heroes brand.
Now, as some have noted, you can’t count on NBC doing things which are logical: it could try to draw every ounce of blood out of the stone which is Heroes, and it could leave Leno on every night of the week with only some small fixes (“Leno’s back behind a desk!” seems highly probable). But right now the best thing that NBC can do is make changes which demonstrate an awareness of what is happening around them: the need right now is to show that they’re paying attention to both the bottom line and their network’s brand identity, and while course correcting through cancellation might seem an easy fix for us, it wouldn’t be quite so easy for the network trying to balance itself in the new year.