It's one of those chestnuts that periodically pops up in your e-mail in-box: a list of "The World's Shortest Books," including such titles as "Virginity in France;" a "History of Scottish Charities," etc.
We'd like to add one more book to the list, and it might be the shortest one of all. Call it "TV Executives Who Were Considered Geniuses." You wouldn't need a book to list them; in fact, the front side of a 5" x 7" index card should suffice, with plenty of room left over for a favorite recipe.
You can count the number of truly gifted TV execs on one hand. Here's our list:
-- Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, the former ad man who created the Today and Tonight shows for NBC in the 1950s.
-- Fred Silverman, who programmed CBS (and later, ABC) to ratings dominance in the 1960s and 70s.
-- Roone Arledge, who transformed television sports coverage and built ABC's news and sports divisions into powerhouses.
-- Ted Turner (yes, that Ted Turner), who saw the early potential in satellite programming channels and invented cable news.
-- Roger Ailes, who defied conventional wisdom and made Fox News the undisputed leader among cable news outlets.
Readers will note the absence of Jeff Zucker from that list. Mr. Zucker, is the one-time wunderkind who led Today to ratings glory, and now runs NBC-Universal. Currently, Zucker is presiding over one of the great debacles in television history. We refer to the on-going, clumsy effort to cancel Jay Leno's 10 p.m. comedy show and (possibly) replace Conan O'Brien as host of the Tonight Show.
Here's the grim situation now facing Mr. Zucker and NBC. Leno, who hosted Tonight for 17 years (and was #1 for most of that time) has been a flop in prime time. His new program, airing in prime time, has failed to deliver even the modest audience promised by NBC. That, in turn, has created a ratings disaster for NBC's local affiliates and their all-important 11 p.m. newscasts.
In New York, for example, the network's flagship station, WNBC, has fallen into third place in the late, local news race for the first time in a generation. That means a loss of millions of dollars for the network's bottom line. Similar declines have been experienced at stations owned by other broadcasters. Putting it bluntly, Zucker and NBC are facing an ugly revolt by local affiliates, who want Leno out of the 10 p.m. slot and sooner, rather than later.
Making matters worse, the Tonight Show has also fallen on hard times. With Mr. O'Brien as host, the program now trails CBS's David Letterman by an average of 2 million viewers a night. You don't need to be an accountant to understand the impact on NBC's balance sheet, and those of its local stations. Tonight was a cash cow during Leno's tenure; not only did he beat Letterman by a significant ratings margin, he also earned a lower salary than his CBS rival, making NBC's profit margin even bigger.
So how is Zucker going to fix this mess? According to Bill Carter of The New York Times, the NBC programming chief has devised an improbable solution. Move Jay Leno back to his old slot at 11:35 for a 30-minute program, with O'Brien's hour-long Tonight Show airing at 12:05. Under that arrangement, Conan's Late Night successor, Jimmy Fallon, would follow at 1:05, and Last Call with Carson Daly starting at 2:05 a.m.
Of course, none of this is cast in stone. Other reports suggest that either Jay or Conan O'Brien will leave the network in the coming weeks. As you might expect, NBC will pay a huge penalty if either man walks. By some estimates, the potential payout for Leno or O'Brien would be in the tens of millions of dollars. Making matters worse, the departing performer would almost certainly land a new gig at another network, creating even more competition for NBC and its crumbling, late-night line-up.
To use Janet Napolitano's preferred term, this is a man-caused disaster of the first magnitude. NBC had a dominant Tonight Show (with Jay Leno in the chair), but they feared losing Conan O'Brien to another network. So, Zucker and company forced Leno out of the slot, giving him the 10 p.m. show as a combination placeholder/consolation prize.
The suits at NBC believed that O'Brien could hold the audience at 11:35; if Leno bombed in prime time, they could buy him out and still preserve the Tonight Show money machine. They thought O'Brien was the second coming of Johnny Carson, not realizing that Conan's ratings spike (in the middle of the last decade) was against inferior competition on CBS. Once Craig Ferguson arrived on the scene, O'Brien's audience began to slide. But by that time, Conan had already been guaranteed the Tonight Show, and the die was cast for Zucker's catastrophe.
One more thing. Did we mention that NBC also has new ownership? Comcast, the cable giant, is in the process of buying the network from General Electric. Understandably, Comcast wants a quick fix for the Leno/O'Brien problem. Firing Jeff Zucker would probably be a good start, although the company would pay for that as well. For creating this mess--and leaving NBC in fourth place in prime time-- Mr. Zucker was recently given a new contract (and a raise).
Maybe Zucker is a genius after all.
ADDENDUM: If NBC has any ray of hope, it comes in the form of the Winter Olympics, which begin next month. That will give the network a temporary ratings spike, get Leno off the prime time airwaves, and provide a platform to promote the "new" late night line-up.