Dinosaurs really never seem to get along with one another, if the old Saturday monster-movie matinees are to be believed, so perhaps it was of little moment last week when one of the last big broadcast lizards still stomping around the rim of the tar pit swung its spiked tail into the belly of a rival dino.
Days after NBC CEO Jeff Zucker told investors that his network could no longer afford to honor a Triassic Period business model, rival heavy Leslie Moonves bared his chompers. “I’m here to tell you the model ain’t broke,” Moonves said at the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference last week. “You can still make a lot of money in network television. We like 10 o’clock shows.”
No timid herbivore, Moonves has a history of going after Zucker. This time, the CBS chief seized upon NBC’s plan to shift late-night mainstay Jay Leno into prime time to protect the franchise while relieving NBC Entertainment co-chair Ben Silverman of having to program those five hours a week. Moonves told his UBS audience that such a proposal wouldn’t fly at Black Rock. “For NBC, it’s probably a very good move,” Moonves said. “For us, it wouldn’t be. We’re winning four of five nights at 10 p.m. I would bet anyone that CSI: Miami will beat Jay by a lot.”
For all the flak Zucker gets, in this case most of the people who do business with NBC think he’s looking pretty smart. “This is quite a novel approach, but maybe they’re going to have to try some things that we might think are a little radical,” said Ray Dundas, Initiative senior vp, director of national broadcast. “But something is going to have to get done because none of the networks have been able to retain or grow their audience.”
The timing of NBC’s Leno announcement threw many observers for a loop, as it came on the heels of Zucker’s suggestion that the net was looking to actively reduce its prime-time load.
“Can we continue to broadcast 22 hours in prime time? Three of our competitors don’t,” Zucker said last Monday, in reference to Fox, The CW and MyNetworkTV. At the time, it was thought that Zucker’s observation signaled an impending transfer of a few evening hours to NBC affiliates.
While the affils were pushed back out of the foreground by the subsequent Leno announcement, station reps will play a role in the changing face of NBC. Specifically, the net has allowed for the creation of an affiliate advisory board that will work with NBC on the format of the Leno program.
“It’s a bold move, [but] Zucker was aware we needed to help them,” said Michael Fiorile, vice chairman and CEO, Dispatch Broadcast Group and chairman of the NBC affiliates board. “We’re looking forward to making sure it builds to 11 pm.”
Although no specific guidelines have been established for the Leno format, Fiorile’s working group has been toying with the notion of establishing different commercial-break structures within the show and adding a local-news window. There’s even some thought of asking Leno to throw to the local newscasts at around 10:58 p.m. or so.
A second Leno monologue staged in the latter half of the hour could also steer viewers into the news. “It’s an opportunity for them to change the format a bit, to allow for more user-friendly client content within the show, be it live lead-ins or live commercials,” Dundas said.
NBC sales president Mike Pilot said Leno would be open to unique ad integration ideas, although he stressed that talks with advertisers wouldn’t begin until after the show’s format is finalized. “A lot remains to be determined,” he said, “but it is Jay’s unique ability and talent that will make possible a lot of opportunities.”
Beyond ad integration opportunities, the affiliates feel they’ve been given an opportunity to help build a stronger lead-in to 11 p.m. “I’m pleased they held onto Leno and that they’re open to helping us,” Fiorile said. “I’m hoping this is going to work.”
On the ledgers, NBC will certainly save millions with Leno in the 10 p.m. slot. Conservative estimates put production costs for Jay 2.0 at around $2 million per week, while a full load of scripted drama could easily cost seven times that amount. Besides, as Zucker readily admits, the hour hasn’t exactly been a kingmaker for 30 Rock. “The 10:00 time period hasn’t been that successful for us in recent years,” he told CNBC’s Erin Burnett. “Couple that with the cost savings involved and it all adds up.”
Moonves is probably right about the kind of numbers CSI: Miami will put up against NBC on Monday night, but even if Leno only averages a 2.4 rating, viewers are far more likely to watch commercials in the context of a talk-show format. (Compared to traditional scripted fare, the genre is DVR Kryptonite, said Donna Speciale, president, investment and activation at MediaVest.)
That said, no network seems to excite more derision than NBC––attacks that can get weirdly personal. One cable network chief, who spoke on condition of anonymity, accused the Peacock brass of engaging in an almost reckless dilettantism. “The last time someone put late-night in prime, we all got stuck with Dick Cavett,” he cracked. “I’m all for novelty, but look what Silverman accomplished the one time he tried it. Rosie Live was an atrocity.”
For all the head-scratching—and bomb throwing—that first greeted the Leno news, buyers seem to have endorsed NBC’s strategy. “Zucker’s the only one with the gumption to say, ‘Look we can’t just stay where we are and pretend that everything’s going to be fine the way it is,’” said Speciale. “Kudos to him. Now they can really concentrate on 8:00-10:00.”
—with Katy Bachman and Steve McClellan (of Adweek)