why not think like a broadcaster?


I watched with interest the Charlie Rose interview with NBC/Universal President Jeff Zucker who has been heavily invested in the programming debacle of the network’s entertainment division. Of most recent note was the late night changes forced by the failure of The Jay Leno Show in prime time.

So many opinions and rehashes of what was taking place at NBC have been published or put on air and I’m just a voice over guy and a broadcaster at heart…there’s not much I felt I could add to the mix.

Then, I watched the Zucker interview and I saw the nexus of this decades old problem in his answers. Thirty minutes of back and forth with Zucker’s use of the word “obviously” so numerous as to make it a drinking game – but I felt I saw the crux of NBC’s problem so clearly right away.

Going back to 1993, 2004 and through today, the decision makers at NBC, up until only recently owned by General Electric, were thinking like business people. They made their NBC decisions primarily based on profit and loss as if their network was the equivalent of a household appliance or a light bulb.

What Jeff Zucker (as well as his predecessors) and the brass at NBC were and are NOT doing was thinking like a broadcaster first. Broadcasters too care very much about profit and loss but they consider the audience first – what will appeal to the people buying our products?

How does that work? Let’s look at the Leno/O’Brien issue.

In 2004, a person who thinks like a “broadcaster” does not approach their longtime leader in the 11:30 p.m. time slot (by a pretty sizable margin) and say to him “Jay, we don’t think you can keep this rating momentum up much longer even though you are still #1, so we’re going to fire you from this job in five years time and put another host in.”

No, a broadcaster lets the audience decide on who stays and who goes and if the broadcaster wants to hedge their bets, they sign their current host to a 2-3 year contract, a shorter leash.

Carson always did one year deals in at least the last ten years of his NBC agreement.

Ah but what about the other host who is gaining in popularity, how do you deal with that? After all, you grew that host from the ground up in some very shaky times early on and now he owns his time slot at 12:30 a.m. and is ready to bolt to maybe ABC, maybe at 11:30. You negotiate with the 12:30 host a right of first refusal for the 11:30 spot, should it come open, add money, other incentives and hopes he takes it. If not, you let him go.

Yes, the 12:30 host could become a big star and formidable competitor on another network in the way CBS was able to establish its own late night franchise in 1993. But those negotiations were also not handled by broadcasters…and what you are reading about in the papers today is, in my opinion, at least in part a direct result of the Carson / Letterman / Leno debacle of the 90’s.

Today NBC sons (Zucker / O’Brien) are paying for the sins of their fathers (Bob Wright / Warren Littlefield / Jay Leno with Helen Kushnick) because the succession that everyone who was a true broadcaster knew should take place at NBC then (Letterman taking over for Carson when Carson announced his retirement, did not. The GE executives didn’t like having to deal with Letterman who was not a pushover.

David Letterman and Conan O’Brien think like broadcasters (as did Johnny Carson before them) and have for the most part been revenue builders (Conan’s Tonight Show was always going to need time as did Jay’s broadcast when it started). Carson, Letterman and O’Brien all knew what the Tonight Show meant to viewers and the broadcasting industry.

Bob Wright, Warren Littlefield, Jeff Zucker and certainly Jay Leno did not and do not think like broadcasters. Two are strictly corporate in their thinking and one is solely a joke teller, a comedian. Jay did very well in the ratings, did what he was told by the corporation and that got him fired twice…a broadcaster would had more self-respect…sooner. They all saw the Tonight Show as a show that makes money and entertains.

The difference between the two schools of thinking makes all the difference in this dispute.

Bob Wright and Jeff Zucker are businessmen in the mold of General Electric even in spite of Zucker’s ascension through the broadcast world –listen to his quotes in the Rose interview. Does Zucker ever refer to these programs as broadcasts – are his programming ideas based on what the audience wants or rather what makes a good economic business decision? His “risks”, that he often refers to in the interview, seem much more shareholder driven rather than audience driven.

1. Audience 2. Bottom Line – not the other way around.

My belief is if Zucker (or his predecessors at GE) truly considered the audiences’ wants first (in the way broadcasters think), Zucker would still be able to fulfill his duties to shareholders (television IS a business yet it is beholden to the viewer first and foremost, not the stockholder). But it was Zucker, Bob Wright, Warren Littlefield and General Electric’s inability to put the audience first that ultimately has led to GE getting out of broadcasting. General Electric (and their by its leadership at NBC was never able to divert its eyes off of its stock value momentarily and put its customer (the viewer!) first.

None of this makes any of the NBC players mentioned here (past or present) bad people. They are all talented and smart. But they are not smart like broadcasters and for that one reason, they are or have been ill-suited for their positions.

This chapter has pretty much been written…and what I have proposed here is what the participants past, present and future can learn from it.

But it’s never too late to adopt a new (or in this case old-school) way of thinking. After all, NBC is the National Broadcasting Company.

One Response to “why not think like a broadcaster?”

  1. Were Zucker at CBS, Sunday night’s anchor program “60 Minutes” would have long ago been replaced by the latest money-making genre.