I would have thought that all conglomerates have learned how quickly they can be damaged by "not checking in" with their customer base. Doesn't anyone remember a year ago when Tropicana disastrously changed their carton without asking if anyone loved the old one? But no one at NBC Universal Comcast GE Microwave got a whiff of the orange-flavored catastrophe so they stepped right back into shit with their heads in the air. And no matter how they paint this pig, the last-place network has lost a huge swath of TV watchers (and we all watch TV, no matter who says "Not me") by telling us how the Leno drama will end up.
It's as if they thought we would somehow accept their final answer.
A statement along the lines of "Don't worry, we're fine moving Jay into Conan's slot" was a classic that worked great before we became our own TV networks. That is, we are now the people who make the news. Water coolers are no longer where the action is--it's on our handheld Black-i-Pres where we wouldn't dream of quoting a major news story we didn't have an opinion on. And yes, there was a time when we might be swayed by the machinations of an evil (but persuasive) newsmaking machine.
Back in the days of The Cosby Show being moved opposite Magnum P.I., a powerful media corporation could dictate a success by aggressively shoving a plethora of ads down our shrugging throats. (Even in 2005, when Grey's transferred to Thursdays, it worked because "Choose Thursday" was plastered behind every toilet!) But now we do the shoving. We are the tweeters and status-updaters and IMers and G-talkers who make opinionated decisions based on how we feel about the deciders. Zucker & Co. will find their unsubtle ways emulated by the people as we take our fight to the well-oiled Internet.
And so this will be an unwinnable public fight that an old-fashioned conglomerate will regret.
It only gets worse for NBC who has to wince as side-show celebrities take sides in an ugly, unfettered way. The slot winner (Jay) has a single star in his corner--and Mr. Seinfeld is already on the payroll cause NBC's committed to his tacky reality series soon to be renamed Jerry Is a Whore. Rosie O and Jimmy K have been nastily telling Jay to do "the right thing" so Conan can retain the throne--Kimmel went so far as to say "We have children--you have cars." Alas, NBC has become so righteous and indignant that if Leno did say I'm out of here there's simply no way NBC could keep the 11:35 brand from dom. Really, this is a circus created in less than a month that should never have gone this far.
NBC played it too close to the chin--er, vest and did not look our way. It's a corporate error still mass-produced by many media companies as they leak news to same-size media companies and believe we will accept the verdict because it's all business and nothing is personal. But NBC chieftains (like those orange dudes) are not cognizant of how much personal time we spend laughing at the disasters powerful people make every day. We laugh at the news--we laugh at the way it is covered--we laugh at the tone. Our thought is always, "As if we don't already know what's going on."
We already know NBC is scared witless they made a mistake. And they never bothered to come to us for advice. And that is PR 101.
NBC Universal needed to concoct an online forum using the requisite tools--Twitter, Facebook, a popup micro-site, Linked-in, even colorless NBC.com - to gather ideas given them by a few who care who hosts what. If they had, they'd be in a powerful position to say "We got this data from knowledgeable, helpful participants." The results might have surprised them.
What we have here is a unique dilemma. Two big players on one network is normal--but one is always more popular by far. Jay Leno is the handy standby that luckily signing a decent contract allowing him to work until he drops dead. Conan O'Brien is the risky business decision--quirky, unbalanced, nervous-to-a-fault, freakishly tall--now being thrown out like yesterday's omelet because his early show didn't rise to hit levels by usual standards. These are two separate stories that should not have competed for public attention. Leno should have been put on hiatus--isn't that word that everyone uses for cancellation anyway?
I'm surprised, too, that GE has such a short memory about Tonight. Doesn't Zucker have copies of memos about how poorly Leno performed post-Carson? NBC stood firm with carefully crafted press statements until Leno started winning. The holders-of-the-pink-slips did same for an unknown O'Brien when he took Letterman's 12:35 show with little notice. [NBC was always the evil empire. They started the Irishman with 26-week contracts.]
In 1993, remember that Letterman was god, but the notion that of canning Leno after seven months and playing musical time periods was unfathomable. It's insulting to the host and the well-honed staff that has just gotten going; still, but it would have been seen as a slap to viewers who may not be watching but waited to see what others thought about the change.
In 2010, anyone who reads knows O'Brien ratings are low, granted, but Nielsen is only a part of the story today. The "viralness" of some of the current Tonight stunts have been gaining ground and people began to talk...which always leads to an increase on TV and a lot of sponsored Hulu hits. Simultaneously, NBC ruined Jay Leno at 10 by forcing him to be a PR guy whose guests were network stars of their own troubled (read stale) programming. Zachary Levi is colorful on Chuck, but come on!
Now the online/offline/phone-addicted public has their arms firmly folded (and will remain that way) because NBC drop-kicked the redhead and never checked with 24/7 tweeters to ask how would you feel about a switch.
Doesn't NBC know anyone over at Tropicana?
Funny thing is--asking people ("in an Internet chat where we discussed our problems") gives these suits an ability to claim, say a year from now, that O'Brien was paid out because the viewers spoke up and said it was time for a change. Key word: time.
And the current big-rating monologues are silly ("Guess what," murmured O'Brien, "I've been offered a role in a porno...and I'm considering it!") and are helping no one. It's fun like a poke in the eye! Keeping the fisting skit that Conan did about NBC on its own ad-supported Hulu isn't a sensible strategy. It's also not funny for new owner Comcast who has to clean it up.
Don't you find it uncomfortable watching two corporate stooges poking fun at one another while competitors use their public fight to bring viewers in? (Seth Meyers on SNL: "This week you didn't need Cinemax to see someone get screwed on TV.") The pit bosses know the two Tonight hosts' careers have been irreparably blown and still neither's camp has done anything but cower--and bitch. "Team Conan" concept is a tween-era marketing boon for the Twilight set that won't mean more people turning in after he moves to E!.
In a few short weeks the dust is sure to settle. Leno will pop back up at 11:35 (wistfully, with his lips smacking); Conan will get a million viewers who can locate him after Chelsea Handler or Wanda Sykes; The Late Show host will be crowing like mad and winning, I guess; and no one will care. By then Charlie Sheen will be jailed, hospitalized or dead and we'll all be jawing about the new laugh riot Toby Maguire on 3 and a Half Men.
After the Vancouver Olympics no one will be talking about NBC--a boycott will be underway--and I'm sure young Fallon will be blamed, tarred and feathered. Those pride-filled peacockers will have a big hole to fill. It will be their mouths. Because no one in our networked world wants to be told who is good or bad. And as far as numbersl, in the DVR Culture world Nielsen no longer holds the cards to what succeeds.