Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Mopping Up Culture Vomit: Late Night Gate and Machiavelli for dummies

Amidst the deafening chorus of calls for Conan solidarity (I alliterate because, as you can see, I love), one essential question seems to have been buried: how is this possibly going to turn out well for NBC? I know it seems like NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker has become the Dick Cheney of television executives, but, unless you write for the Huffington Post, you have to admit that Cheney truly believes he's doing the right thing for America, even if it's career-endingly unpopular.

But how does Zucker imagine that his late-night Iraq War will actually benefit his network?

Surveying the wreckage: virtually everyone with a Twitter account/Blogger account/iTunes account that doesn't include Nickelback hates the great-chinned wonder. They, understandably, were pissed when his ghost continued to haunt NBC even after he was exorcised from the Tonight Show. Affiliates were up in arms because they predicted (correctly) that a bunt like the Jay Leno Show would kill the momentum that carries prime-time viewers through to (apparently lucrative) local late news broadcasts. And those who admire ambitious television programming (or maybe just those who like good television) were annoyed (but unsurprised) at yet another drive towards mediocrity from the guy who brought us Joey and Fear Factor.

The aforementioned were vindicated, then, when it appeared that the Leno experiment was going down in flames. Zucker and NBC realized, correctly I think, that Leno is a tremendously more marketable personality in late-night than in prime-time. So, they thought, if Leno works better in late-night, why not put him back there? The flip-flop would alienate Conan and instill fear in the hearts of anyone with an NBC contract, but at least things would go back to normal in late-night, right? A Leno-Conan one-two punch could go back to beating Letterman, right?

Well, aside from the fact that NBC executives are neanderthals if they actually thought that Conan would stick around to see the birth of the "Tomorrow Show," the idea that the audience who didn't stick with Leno through his time-slot change will flock back to him if he returns to his old post is a bit far-fetched.

Let's go with the most likely outcome: Conan leaves NBC, and Leno returns to the Tonight Show. Even without Leno inhabiting it, the 10 o'clock hour will be a wasteland for quite a while. Law & Order: Poughkeepsie may bring a few more viewers back to the fold, but the vast majority of those who jumped on the CSI bandwagon will probably stay there for the foreseeable future.

And without a proper lead-in, NBC won't be able to lure back viewers who will stay on until the late-night hour. Letterman's captured the lost NBC viewers, and he'll probably keep 'em. He's a familiar face, and, if anything, the late-night switch proved that people go with a familiar face over someone new/with red hair. The lowest-common-denominator viewer isn't loyal, and he's mostly watching TV because it's better than reading a book. Why would he turn off something he's gotten used to over the last few months?

So, I ask you again, what does NBC think they're going to gain from this? They probably won't get back many of their lost viewers, they've already whipped up a backlash so fearsome it makes the Facebook newsfeed look puny, and they've lost one of the three or four likable people on their network.

You could call NBC's moves in the context of Late Night Gate Machiavellian. But the ends, in this case, don't seem to justify the means. Machiavelli, after all, exhorted getting the job done.

The Prince would be ashamed.