NBC’s broken promise: We’ll give Jay a full year

Promises, promises: Jay Leno and Jeff Zucker




NEW YORK, Jan. 14, 2010 — It all seems now as if I dreamed it.

But I did not — I WAS there, in a small suite in a tiny boutique hotel no one had ever heard of before, about a half-block from Times Square, seated with a group of about a dozen journalists for an informal news conference with Jay Leno and his boss at NBC, Jeff Zucker.

Again and again, at this news conference hastily convened during network television’s upfront week last May, reporters asked Zucker: What is your network’s commitment to the new prime-time show Jay will be hosting weeknights at 10 o’clock?  The reporters asked this question repeatedly, in any number of various ways, and Zucker never wavered in his answer: The new “Jay Leno Show” would stay on the air for its first year at least, a 46-week run, without regard for ratings.  This was also the assurance the network gave Jay, repeatedly, including on that day, since Jay was there too.

In his many answers to essentially the same question, Zucker indicated that such a commitment was really the only way to handle a concept that was so new and different — basically a hybrid of a late-night talk show and an old-fashioned variety show, but airing five nights a week.

For NBC to learn if the concept would work, this show would have to run at least a year, Zucker explained, because the whole plan was based on the network’s belief that Leno’s show, with 230 new episodes produced per year, with no repeats outside of Leno’s six vacation weeks, would, at various times of year such as the summer, out-compete the other networks whose shows in the 10 p.m. time period would each only have 22 episodes.

To NBC, that seemed to mean that the Leno show would be well-positioned to win the time period in those many, many weeks when the competition was in reruns, or was using the 10-11 p.m. hour to try out various replacement shows.

And Zucker insisted that ratings, at least for that first 46 weeks, would not be a reason to yank the show.  However, that is exactly what has happened — low ratings are the reason NBC is shelving Leno’s 10 p.m. show, leading to the spectacle now on view in which the network tries to cram Leno and Conan both into late-night and, as a result of this bungled effort, might now lose one or both of them.

Zucker might have been sincere last May (and all the other times he repeated the same mantra in the months leading up to the debut of “The Jay Leno Show” last September).  Maybe the ratings really didn’t matter to him.  But apparently, the ratings do matter to NBC’s affiliates — a situation Zucker and the rest of his executive team seem not to have ever considered.  In hindsight, maybe they should have considered the possibility that affiliates would become disaffected if their late newscasts took a hit from Leno’s low lead-in numbers.

But affiliate displeasure of this magnitude is so unprecedented in network television that you can hardly blame the NBC execs for failing to plan for the possibility of an all-out affiliate rebellion in the event that Leno flopped.

On the other hand, their own company owns and operates a substantial station group whose managers might have sent a memo up to corporate at some point in the late-night planning process to ask if they should be worried about the health of their 11 o’clock newscasts.

Contact Adam Buckman: AdamBuckman14@gmail.com



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