The Market Research Failure Behind NBC’s Jay Leno Debacle: Part II

Welcome back for the second part of this post.

NBC clearly  had a number of problems to solve. Lackluster ratings for the programs they were airing in prime time was one; the fact they’d promised the Tonight Show to Conan to keep him from leaving the network was another, as they’d have to pay him something like $40 million if they broke that contract; the fact Leno didn’t want to retire was a third. So, brilliant plan on NBC’s part: drop all the expensive 10 pm dramas that cost maybe $3 million per episode and replace them with the Leno show, for something like $2 million per week. Save a fortune in production costs, save $40 million in Conan payouts, and “manage for the margins,” as everyone reports NBC’s Jeff Zucker, pictured at right, planned to do.

Here’s where the research finally comes in: NBC apparently did the math, figured out what sort of ratings Leno would need at 10 pm in order to make the show profitable for the network via ad sales, and conducted viewer research to make sure enough people would watch the show to produce that rating. I’m sure that consisted of asking people variations of “what would you watch if all of the following programs were on at 10 pm,” and running down each night of the week, with Leno inserted in place of each NBC drama that was then airing. The results of that research seem to have been pretty accurate; the network was promising advertisers ratings that were pretty similar to what Leno was actually getting. They were embarrassingly low, I think, but they were around the base level that NBC had promised. The failure of imagination is that they just don’t appear to have asked much in the way of logical follow-ups of the people who said they wouldn’t be watching Jay at 10 — i.e., the vast majority of people. Questions like:

  • Do you watch any NBC shows at 10 pm right now?
  • After you watch one of them, what do you watch at 11? And then at 11:30?
  • How often do you find out about one program by seeing a promo during another?
  • If your favorite NBC show no longer existed, what do you think you would watch at 10 if these were your remaining choices? And then at 11? And 11:30?
  • When you watch an 11:00 newscast, do you always watch the same station? Or do you watch different stations at different times?
  • Do you ever decide to watch an 11:00 newscast because of a promo you saw earlier in the evening?
  • Do you ever decide to watch an 11:30 or 12:30 late night show because of a promo you saw earlier in the evening?

(You can make an argument that they should have been asking a whole series of other questions as well,  like “Is Jay Leno even a little bit funny,” and “Would you rather watch Jay Leno or that guy singing ‘Pants on the Ground’,” or “What the hell were we thinking when we gave the Tonight Show to Leno and not Letterman in the first place all those years ago,” and “Hey what’s that over there oh my god look out it’s Johnny Carson’s ghost and he’s coming at you with a crowbar,” but that’s probably inappropriate here.)

I think if they’d thought to ask those questions, and had the imagination to work through what the answers met (and shared the data with the affiliates), they’d have foreseen the future: the folks who used to watch NBC’s 10 pm programming are now watching something else at 10, and they’re not turning the channel back at 11, or 11:30, or, in some cases, maybe not at all. I really think promos are critical, especially in a world with hundreds of channels and no one reading TV Guide. If I’m not watching your 10 pm show on Wednesday, I don’t know what you’ve got going on in your 8 pm sitcoms on Thursday. If I don’t watch your 10 pm show on Friday, I might not have any idea that you’re airing the wildcard NFL games on Saturday. (Seriously, who knew the Jets/Bengals and Dallas/Philadelphia games were on NBC last week? Complete surprise in my house.) When I’m watching less on your network in general, I’m not seeing you promote your new shows, or new episodes of existing ones — I’m getting nothing, and you, my soon-to-be-owned-by-Comcast friends: you are in a death spiral.

It’s worth noting this wasn’t solely Leno-related: local news itself has been suffering greatly in recent years, and losing its lead in was sure to kill it (at least temporarily) in some markets. I touched on this briefly near the end of Part I. Talk about your market research failures: each market has three or more stations all bringing you the same news you can’t use: the same overhyped “team coverage” of the same piddly winter storm, the same drug-related shooting  nowhere near your home or office, the same fire at the same house with the same interviews with the same neighbors, and all of them in a race to cut costs by dumping whatever talent they still have with a connection to the community or an ability to actually report. Who needs it?

So, how does this all end? Looks like it’ll be with Conan leaving the network and Leno back on at 11:30, unfortunately. In a fair world, it would end with Jeff Zucker and Jay Leno both out of jobs, but that strikes me as unlikely, especially considering how much NBC enjoys mediocrity these days. Could they have avoided all of this with some smartly designed research? Truly, probably not. I think they were hell-bent on this path and wouldn’t have paid much attention to any data contradicting what they already decided they “knew” — that America loves Leno and that he’d be a surefire hit at 10. Which, come to think of it, is another failure of imagination — the inability to imagine that you might just be wrong.



Filed under Conan, Failure of imagination, Leno, Market Research, TV

2 responses to “The Market Research Failure Behind NBC’s Jay Leno Debacle: Part II

  1. I agree with your analysis, but I think there is more. The additional problem with NBC’s research was their fundamental misunderstanding of the role that late-night TV plays in the lives of their viewers. You don’t “get” this by asking whether they’d watch Leno at 10 or whether they’d respond to a promo.

    For decades, Americans have gotten used to seeing serious news and then, before they go to sleep, laughing a bit. It just doesn’t work the other way around, and they missed that. Research doesn’t have to be just surveys with statistically significant samples; instead, they should start figuring out how to walk in their viewers’ shoes. In the 21st century, there are lots of ways to build that kind of empathy, and NBC has a long way to go.

    (I love your blog, by the way.)

  2. Thanks so much! That’s a really good point you make, and it reminds me of one of the original things I’d wanted to say and then forgot about — quantitative research just can’t do it all. It’s especially hard to get respondents to answer questions about how they’d act if the world were fundamentally different, because it’s hard to fully understand all the ramifications of a different world until you’re actually in it.

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