Everybody Hates Jay

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.

If you've just woken from an extended bout of unconsciousness, you may not have heard that NBC moved Jay Leno to 10pm last fall, and that now that grand experiment in prime-time is over. Well, fear not. You'll have plenty of opportunity to catch up on the juicy details as the debacle is dissected with great glee over the next few weeks after all, this is not only a major story, but a delicious opportunity for schadenfreude. But I would say that schadenfreude could be as costly to the TV business as a whole as the grand experiment could be costly to NBC.

I am not saying that NBC's experiment was smart. I never understood why Leno was popular 11:30, so I really didn't think he'd work at 10. But it made some sense for the fourth-place network in a dying industry to throw the Hail Mary. With a show so much less expensive than a police procedural or hospital drama, they didn't need to win the time slot they just needed to garner enough audience to give the affiliates a decent lead-in to their all-important local news. Which they didn't.

But NBC's mistakes were as much about business as programming. First, they didn't get complete buy off from the affiliates who were most affected by the change. Second, they didn't work out a deal with Leno and Conan up front in the event that their low percentage pass got dropped. They also should have had something in the can to announce with great fanfare when they decided to pull the plug on jay.

The whole thing smacks of our lack of planning for the aftermath of the Iraq war. Perhaps Jeff Zucker should send Zalmay Khalilzad to the NBC affiliates meeting. He'd probably be safer in Iraq.

But as I said, the cost of this ill-advised adventure is not just to NBC, but to the spirit of vital experimentation in the TV industry that it embodied. Make no mistake. Broadcast TV is in trouble. Jay may have been a failure, but the old-school produced shows it's been running against haven't exactly bringing in stellar numbers either. And now, in the wake of NBC's public humiliation over this episode, executives will poo-poo anything that smacks of being out of the box at least for the next couple of years. Even if some propeller-headed genius comes up with the solution to all of TVs problems in the next year, you can bet that hell get smacked down but hard.

Look, I understand the folks in and out of the business who protested that Leno in prime time meant five hours less of scripted programming. But I do not believe that five hours a week of well coiffed, self-serious crime fighters or middle-brow comedies are somehow morally superior to five hours a week of middle-brow monologues and interviews with well coiffed, self-serious celebrities. And in terms of the good union jobs scripted shows represent, I get that, too. But no one is going to have a job if the TV industry can't figure out a lower cost way of competing with YouTube, and Facebook and World of Warcraft.

So, now to NBC's other big announcements. Jerry Seinfeld's new reality series The Marriage Ref.

Howie Mandel will replace David Hasselhoff as a judge on America's Got Talent. You see? It's back to the creek with the same paddle. Meanwhile, the rocks and the falls fast approach.

I'd love to know what you think. You can comment on today's Business Brief or subscribe to the podcast at KCRW.com/TheBusinessBrief. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.



Matt Holzman