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.