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October 24, 2014

NBC: 'In the Toilet Right Now'

by Stephanie Earp, posted Jan 18th 2010 12:30PM

For crimes against Conan O'Brien, NBC is on trial. As with so many trials lately, this one is being played out in the media.

I'm sure NBC executives were somewhat prepared to endure a few jabs from Golden Globes host Ricky Gervais last Sunday. After all, the 'Late Night Wars' are the only recent news that could possibly be turned into a joke. But when Julia Roberts tells you off on the red carpet, you know you are losing the PR war. Instead of telling the inflatable pre-show hosts "who" she was wearing, Julia turned to the camera and told NBC they were "in the toilet right now." Even Juliana Margulies - who rose to fame on 'ER', an NBC drama that aired at 10 o'clock - took an indirect potshot at NBC. As she accepted her award for best actress in a television drama for 'The Good Wife' she thanked her network, CBS, for "believing in the 10 o'clock drama."

For crimes against Conan O'Brien, NBC is on trial. As with so many trials lately, this one is being played out in the media.

I'm sure NBC executives were somewhat prepared to endure a few jabs from Golden Globes host Ricky Gervais last Sunday. After all, the 'Late Night Wars' are the only recent news that could possibly be turned into a joke. But when Julia Roberts tells you off on the red carpet, you know you are losing the PR war. Instead of telling the inflatable pre-show hosts "who" she was wearing, Julia turned to the camera and told NBC they were "in the toilet right now." Even Juliana Margulies - who rose to fame on 'ER', an NBC drama that aired at 10 o'clock - took an indirect potshot at NBC. As she accepted her award for best actress in a television drama for 'The Good Wife' she thanked her network, CBS, for "believing in the 10 o'clock drama."

You almost feel sorry for them. But it's not like NBC haven't been here before. In the late '70s things were so bad that affiliate stations jumped ship, mostly to ABC (which incidentally, used to a division of NBC - the Supreme Court made them sell it back in the mid-forties.) And that's the threat behind the weird moves NBC is making - the threat of losing affiliate stations. When affiliate stations leave the fold, ad revenues go down and sometimes a network can completely lose coverage in a certain area.

Losing affiliates is one thing - but can you imagine not having a single new show make it through to a second year? NBC has been there before, too. Twice. In 1975 and again in 1983, not a single new fall show made it to a second season.

NBC has even run into this sort of late night problem before, when Jay Leno was given 'The Tonight Show' over David Letterman, who then took his show to CBS.

When you add it all up like this, it looks pretty bad. Enough to make you wonder how NBC has managed to stay in business all these years. But remember that while NBC might not have a single show in the Top 20 right now, they did pretty much invent the 15-minute radio serial, the late-night talk show and the made-for-TV spectacular. They were the first network to put an American president on television, and the first network to offer prime-time hits for free on mobile phones. It's easy to forget that not long ago, NBC had a stranglehold on the ratings that CBS and ABC couldn't touch - until CBS's 'Survivor' came on the scene in 2001.

'Friends', 'Seinfeld', 'Frasier', 'Mad About You', 'Will & Grace', 'Family Ties', 'Cheers', 'Golden Girls', 'Night Court', 'The Cosby Show' - I could go on. As tempting as it is to root for the demise of NBC - mainly for inflicting Jay Leno's chin on us all these years - you have to admit, TV would be a lot less funny without them.

The truth is, the struggle between art and money has always been more obvious at NBC than at any other network. Watching early episodes of 'Seinfeld' or 'Friends' in syndication remind us that neither of these ratings monsters were clearly genius in the beginning. It took patience and vision to let those shows mature. And once they did, it took greed and desperation to come up with the 'supersized' 40-minute episodes that went nowhere and the 'Joey' spin-off.

It's the war between art and money that's at the heart of the Conan-Leno debacle, too. Most people I know like Conan better than Jay - his comedy is edgier, he seems more natural and improvisational and he seems less ego-driven. As Canadian columnist Lainey pointed out last week, it's hard to believe that Jay Leno actually got the millions of viewers NBC claims - since she doesn't know a soul who watches him. But assuming NBC and Neilsen aren't making this stuff up, the truth is Jay Leno makes more money for NBC in late night than Conan O'Brien does. In Leno's last week as the host of 'The Tonight Show' he averaged 7 million US viewers a night. By Conan's second week in the chair it was down to half of that, although the recent controversy has kicked up more viewers for Conan in the last week. Too little, too late, it seems.

If prime-time numbers were better, NBC might have had the stones to weather the ratings storm with Conan in the driver's seat, giving the new host time to establish his own audience. But with things so dire elsewhere on the schedule, and with affiliate stations crying for blood, they did what they felt they had to do.

By my reckoning, it's short-term thinking. Conan will probably go to Fox, who've been wooing him for years. Fox will feel lucky to get him and probably give him the creative freedom and cash to put together something really different. It might not beat 'The Tonight Show' in the ratings, but it could finally establish a late-night hold for Fox, which means fewer 'Family Guy' reruns for you and me. (Which is a win in my book.) And Leno can't live forever - I'm not saying he's in danger of imminent death or anything, but eventually the guy will probably want to retire. When that day comes, NBC will have to endure the same ratings dip as when a new host takes over. At least Conan was groomed for the job - who will they turn to next time? Carson Daly? Maybe they think Tina Fey will do it.

As interesting as his whole debacle has been, it all feels sort of academic to me. In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter who tells a few jokes about Mark McGwire before giving five minutes of air time to the star of the latest Hollywood reboot? Does hosting 'The Tonight Show' really have the power to make or break a comedian's career? Most have done just fine without it.

But most importantly, does anyone with an actual job stay up late enough to watch this stuff?

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