Monday, January 11, 2010

Done Deal

To no one's surprise, NBC has pulled the plug on Jay Leno's failed 10 p.m. comedy show, clearing the way for him to return to his former time slot at 11:35 p.m.

While rumors of Leno's prime time cancellation had been circulating for days, the official announcement was made yesterday, as NBC executives met with entertainment writers in Pasadena, California.

By the low standards of entertainment executives, it was a particularly feckless performance. As reports, the news was delivered by Jeff Gaspin, the head of NBC-Universal's entertainment division. While Gaspin didn't mince words in announcing the cancellation, his explanation was downright odious and stretched the limits of credulity.

First, Mr. Gaspin claims he made the decision to axe Leno's 10 p.m. program, with only minor input from his boss, NBC-U President Jeff Zucker. TV writers aren't a particularly bright bunch, but I don't think anyone in Pasadena was buying that line. Fact is, the decision to move Leno to prime time and give his Tonight Show chair to Conan O'Brien was Jeff Zucker's baby. But when NBC was forced to admit that the experiment had failed, Zucker was no where in sight.

Better yet, Gaspin claimed that his network remained committed to Leno's failed show, but had to cancel it due to "pressure from the affiliates." To be fair, there is an element of truth in that claim. With Leno as a lead-in, local NBC stations were watching the audience evaporate for their critical, late local news. That means millions of dollars for affiliates in larger markets alone.

But it's ridiculous to think the Gaspin, Zucker and the other suits at NBC had to cave to the demands of local stations. There are plenty of examples of networks sticking with lowly-rated programs that show long-term promise. Leno's prime time show may not fall in that category, but if the network wanted to give it a year-long trial (as Gaspin claimed), they should have stayed the course, even if some stations pulled the program from their schedule.

Instead, "affiliate pressure" became a convenient excuse for cancelling a disastrous experiment in the 10 p.m. timeslot--an experiment conceived and executed by the bright boys and girls at NBC. It's one thing to admit a blunder, but you'd think that Zucker and his team would own up to their own, central role in this calamity. But again, we're talking about TV executives. Expecting them to admit their own mistakes is hoping for too much.

Zucker's days at NBC are clearly numbered. But when he gets fired, Mr. Zucker certainly has a promising future in the Democratic party. Blaming someone else for your problems has become a preferred tactic in certain political circles.

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