Monday, January 11, 2010

Bungling at the top

Tempting as it is to associate imbecility mainly with the publishing executives who have hollowed out America’s newspapers, there is plenty of that quality to go around, and not just for bankers.

David Zurawik’s article in today’s Baltimore Sun about the ignominious retreat of NBC over its disaster with Jay Leno’s 10 p.m. show after a mere four months illustrates some of the parallels between broadcast television and the newspaper industry.

Broadcast TV, like newspapers, faces a crisis. The programming is expensive to produce (hence the proliferation of cheap-to-make but tacky reality shows), the viewers are drifting away to more appealing offerings on cable, and advertising revenue is sharply down.

People in a panic are liable to arrive at bad decisions, and the broadcast executives, like their newspaper counterparts, chose something self-destructive. They moved Mr. Leno into the earlier time slot because his show is cheaper than a series to produce. Their contempt for their viewers is comparable to newspaper executives’ contempt for readers: just give them something cheap while pretending that it’s good.*

Unfortunately, NBC also contrived to damage the affiliate stations, whose screaming over lost revenue could be heard throughout the long winter nights even with the windows closed. It was the affiliates’ threat of outright rebellion that prompted NBC’s hasty retreat.

At this point, the principal difference between the broadcast executives and newspaper executives appears to be that the broadcasters conceded publicly that they had made a bad decision.

*I have no particular disregard for Mr. Leno, who appears to be an amiable fellow who can be amusing on the days that his writers give him something to work with.


  1. Two things. Thing one: I would write "tacky but cheap-to-produce reality shows." Thing two: giving viewers something cheap has worked marvellously well, which is why there was such a proliferation of reality shows to begin with. In the meantime, quality programming has migrated to networks that are willing to invest up front in developing the shows and long term in nurturing them along until they can develop an audience.

    What NBC suffers from, along with the other tradition-bound networks, is their apparent need for insta-hits. If a program is not working out after a season, or a few months, or a few weeks, they confuse their viewers with endless schedule changes and soon enough yank the show. This doesn't seem like contempt for viewers so much as simply not having the guts to try something that doesn't follow their quickly failing model.

  2. Programming to draw viewers (expensive or not) is the easy part. The loss/lack of advertising dolars to pay those bills is the (common) problem.

    Back around 1970 US industrial companies faced a similarly tough situation. The success of the Marshall Plan created real competition with up to date machinery and processes at the same time that our own industrial infrastructure was nearly 100 years old with equipment pushing forty.

    This situation was bad enough but add to the mix the (continuing) pressure from labor to maintain the or even improve wages and benefits and on top of that new OSHA and EPA standards.

    What is a smockstack industrialst to do? Reinvest in the businesses and modernize with safer and healthier equipment and processes or turn tail and run?

    ... first as tragedy, second as farce...


  3. An editor at The Virginian-Pilot who considered himself talented used to say that the difference between broadcast news and newspapers was that TV pays its talent. Two newspaper reporters of vastly different talents would make roughly the same salary. A TV reporter/personality whom viewers trusted or wanted to look at could make much more than a fellow reporter/personality of less appeal to viewers. (Yes, TV is about appeal.) At little TV stations, of course, practically everybody was starved, the same as at little newspapers.

  4. I just watched Leno. It's flat. I was talking with a younger person today (my daughter) who pointed out that his humor has become outdated for the younger crowd. It isn't fast enough. I really wonder if the time slot is the issue, or if the watching crowd has tired of the same kind of humor. It will be interesting to see if the ratings increase with a new (old) hour. The young folk are upset about the way Conan is being treated. Many are hoping he bolts NBC.

  5. As much as I like Leno, he often references TV shows, movies or actors from 40+ years ago. I wonder if the audience even gets it. Cultural references in headlines have the same problem. Will everyone get it? Do they tell some parts of your audience "we're not writing for you"? I see many headlines that play off songs that were on the radio 20 or 30 or even more years ago. It cuts both ways: There are probably Green Day references in headlines that I don't recognize.