Why are we condemning Jeff Zucker & NBC over Leno ?

If you want to know why its going to take longer than people hope or expect to get out this great recession, look no further than media and corporate response to Jeff Zuckers move of Jay Leno to primetime.

What Zucker and NBC did was the EXACT RIGHT MOVE.

Business environments change. When they do, as broadcast network television has, and continues to, there are two basic choices. You can do it the way it’s always been done, or you can challenge yourself to change the game.

In the case of NBC, Jeff Zucker chose to take a risk and move Jay Leno from late night television to primetime.  The upside was HUGE.  Rather than risking tens of millions of dollars each season on pilots that never make it on air, and then watching those that do get aired fail far more often than they succeed, Leno in primetime could change the economics of primetime TV dramatically for the better.

Leno’s show would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour instead of 2mm, 3mm or more per hour. A game changer. It was  equivalent to CBS putting a reality show in primetime. Survivor worked. It changed the economics and ratings landscape of TV forever. A successful Leno show would do the same thing,.

But what if Leno to primetime failed ? What was the downside ?

The downside was that NBC could go back to business as usual. They could cancel and move Leno, just as they have done. Then they could go back to the old school way of lots of pilots, build a primetime schedule, and then pray some of the shows work. Rinse and repeat.

Going forward they will program the 10pm slot. They will get some hits, some misses. It will be expensive, but in a few years they will find a hit and recapture the viewers they lost. Just as every network has done in response to a down period.  In a few years the Leno experiment will be nothing more than a memory. A big so what.

Thats what happens when ideas fail. They fade into memory and hopefully something is learned.

But there is a bigger message in all of this.

What I have learned from watching all of this is that corporate America has been neutered. No one has any balls anymore.

I have a saying, “No Balls, No Babies”. It was told to me by a blackjack dealer when I asked if I should double down on an 11. The message was simple. If you dont take the risks, you dont get the rewards.

Well that used to be the case. Its not anymore.

In today’s corporate world, if you don’t take the risks, you don’t get skewered on blogs, on cable news, in the newspaper. Public condemnation  appears to be a far worse consequence than financial success is a reward. Thats a huge problem for our country.

In today’s world, we reward Patent Trolls with 8 and 9 figure settlements for ideas they never did a minute of work on or ever tried to monetize. The extent of their effort was hiring or selling out to patent lawyers. That’s a problem.

In today’s world, we reward companies that cut 10,000 jobs to benefit a few thousand shareholders. We lie to ourselves and say that the money will be re-invested in growth or passed on to shareholders. In reality, it will be used to buy back the stock that was awarded to corporate management under the guise of “avoiding dilution”

In today’s world, we let politicians pretend they know how to solve problems by creating policy “solutions” that are supposed to be implemented over 10 years, while we as voters and citizens go mute despite knowing there is absolutely no chance that any program survives 10 years and any number that is attached to any program, whether its health care or a stimulus program, is an absolute guess at best and most likely an outright lie.

We need more Jeff Zuckers. We need people who try to change the game. Who don’t just approach problems with gutless answers. So what if it didnt work. So what if the media rips him and NBC.

The only problem with what Jeff Zucker and NBC did with Leno is that they are unique in trying to solve problems with original solutions.

We need far more of it. Not less

89 thoughts on “Why are we condemning Jeff Zucker & NBC over Leno ?

  1. amazing! The drama is not Leno/Conan is Zucker/Board of Directors. Amazing really after all it has been written, how can the public co-sign bad checks written by incompetent businessmen? Just because they are written by Men of Business(who BTW is no entrepreneur) on and on. The point is a bad decision is a bad decision no matter the “Good Reasons” behind it. And a lousy business person with a long record of failures is lousy regardless of who judges him. Example The decision to buy a piece of the “Broklyn Bridge” is an ignorant and bad business decision even if the people criticizing it are children, communists or homeless, Mr. Zucker has made a long string of lousy decisions that have cost NBC Millions of dollars. America is tired of Boards of directors that allow chronic failure having grave consequences in loss of jobs, communities resources and to add insult to injury in many cases reward it. The criticism is not particular of Mr. Zucker but of those who co-sign the incompetence under the excuse that is un-American to criticize Business at all.

    Comment by redserpent -

  2. Right as usual. People get wrapped up in the story and the drama rather than the hard cold cash data and facts. These are businesses doing business. It’s not NBCs job to be stick to bad plans – in fact they have an obligation to … change.

    Comment by JoeDuck -

  3. This article is absurd at every level.

    Jeff Zucker made a strategic decision and sold it as the best thing since sliced bread. He dismissed critics, told people things needed to change and executed.

    The result cost NBC millions and everything he was warned about came true. Zucker has had a series of failures and this one proves again that he is completely cluseless about television.

    This is the problem that typifies Corporate America today. According to what was written here there is no such thing as a failure in leadership. There is only decisions that you can reverse because you need to take “risk”. Where is the accountability? If you get rewards for taking a risk why not accept the consequences when you fail?

    The issue here is the lack of accountability for bad decision making. How many failures can this guy make before NBC goes bankrupt? GE owned NBC for one reason only. It was a cash cow. Zucker killed that cow.

    I challenge everyone here to turn left instead of right when you are being warned left is a disaster. And then after losing millions you can scream “I am a risk taker!! That is why I turned left”

    I guarantee you will all be out of jobs.

    I repeat. If you steer your boat into an iceberg you should not be Captain!!

    Comment by dg666 -

  4. I wonder what Mark thinks of General Motors sale of the Saab division to tiny Dutch luxury-sportscar maker Stryker? I wonder if Stryker will take “risks” with the brand after shelling out about 74 million dollars and another 300 million plus in new company stock to GM to gain control of Saab? Here is a case where survival and success will depend on some risk taking to differenciate Saab and restore some profitability.

    Comment by dcangelo -

  5. I’d buy it if the risk had been to do something new. Leno isn’t a RISK. Leno’s a dinosaur. He’s exactly what’s predictably wrong with NBC. NBC isn’t trying to change the game, they’re trying to save a buck. They thought they could get by on the cheap and neither their audience nor their advertisers bought it.

    I’d love to see NBC take a true risk: the kind your describing. Leno wasn’t a double down. He was a quarter on red from a player who’s out of chips and doesn’t want to hit the ATM.

    Comment by jameshelms -

  6. Even if Jay Leno gets good ratings now, Conan is the wave of the future. In five years Leno will likely be off the air and NBC will have only Jimmy Fallon. In ten years they will mess that up too when they bring Leno back again.

    I’m with CoCo. See you on FOX.

    Comment by tywheatley -

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  8. Mark – Great Blog – I had to sell Leno at 10p for a Local Market, I loved the concept and opportunity because it offered comedy at this hour. The ratings are still better than these shows NBC creates – the buyers just did not jump on board.

    Great Post.


    Comment by russwagner -

  9. http://www.thrfeed.com/2008/12/leno-nbc-hedgin.html
    In a piece published on Dec. 9, 2008–on the occasion of NBC announcing Leno’s move to 10 p.m.–Hibberd said he had spoken to the source in June, 2008, who had told Hibberd this:

    “They [NBC] will try to keep Jay in the fold so if Conan fails on ‘The Tonight Show’ they will put Jay right back in there. Jeff Zucker will call Jay into his office with big wink and say, ‘if you say it publicly I’ll deny it, but if Conan fails, I want you back.’ That’s just the way NBC works. Back when Dave and Jay were fighting over ‘The Tonight Show,’ they tried to see if they could do the same thing. That’s what they’re going to try and do here with Jay and Conan, only they are more likely to pull it off this time. One of the most important things to remember about NBC, is they had Coke with Carson. There was no Pepsi. They gave birth to Dave, then they suddenly had a cola war. They cannot bear the idea of Conan or Jay going across the street.”

    Comment by andrewtytla -

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  11. I generally agree with you Mark, but in this case I think you are wrong.


    Because Zucker and Co did not have balls. When Leno made demands they catered to them. They gave him a primetime show when he threatened to go elsewhere. They supposedly allowed his contract to say that he would get a $150m parachute if they canceled the show before two years was up. And when the affiliates complained they gave into them as well and had to do something to try and appease everyone.

    Conan had the balls to say he wouldn’t go through with it and NBC then took the unballsy move of trying to place the blame on him.

    I really don’t see how Zucker and Co are anything other than gutless, avaricious swines. They took no risks, they did everything to AVOID RISK (from letting Leno go to a competitor). They did everything to avoid change, by retaining everything that was wrong with their network. They should not be commended, they should be case studies of what not to do.

    Comment by medrew -

  12. Mark took the “risky” position on this issue, as evidenced by the strong reaction against him. Generally, a lot of the regulars here agree with his posts, but not this time. It’s fascinating how polarizing this is—and I’m wondering why. Do we love to hate Zucker because we’re actually envious of his position? I for one would love to have Zucker’s power to move the chess pieces around—-or play Monopoly with real money, as he is doing. As I posted earlier, Zucker failed big time on this one. Mark seems to admire the fact that Zucker dared to try something different and despises the fact that people are panning Zucker for taking the gamble. Maybe Mark sees himself in Zucker’s position and feels he would like to shake things up and take chances, as he has in his own life. But let’s not get carried away with that comparision. Mr. Cuban has built something from scratch and his hard work and risks have created opportunities for countless others. Zucker is no such host—in fact, he’s FEEDING on a big host. I guess that’s what annoys me most—in my opinion, Zucker was more reckless than risky—and with someone else’s scratch, not his own. As for the talents themselves—years and years ago, Howard Stern said it best when he observed that these guys are already “stale and corporate, all of them.” Stern probably could have gone on ABC at that time and won the ratings war. There is someone (Stern) who actually has taken risks.

    Comment by dcangelo -

  13. I don’t see how Zucker has balls. Where’s the risk?

    He moves a relatively popular talk show host to prime time and another relatively popular late night talk show host to fill his slot. And he did it all to save a few bucks, not because Leno is actually relevant or funny (he never has been). Maybe if he brought a new twist to Leno’s format, maybe, that’s taking a risk, but not just cutting and pasting Leno into prime time.

    I don’t know why NBC wants to cling to Leno like he’s a precious rarity anyway. The logical move would just be to nix Leno, which would turn out to be a risk by Leno, not NBC. As it turns out, and I believe another commenter already mentioned this, Conan bears the consequences of the failed “risk”. It’s unfortunate since he’s the superior of the two (although Jimmy Fallon is slightly more interesting, probably because he hasn’t had a chance to grow into a stale routine).

    As far as original solutions go, they didn’t really have a problem in the first place. They had a surplus of “talent,” and decided to distribute it as cheaply as possible. If they would have kicked Leno to the curb, brought in Jimmy Fallon to the prime time slot and let him do a Dave Chappelle like show, and gave Conan more creative freedom (i.e. not shoe horning him into the typical, standard, formula night show format), then we can have a discussion about how corporate America needs more risk takers like Zucker.

    But I like your message, especially the bolded parts.

    Comment by soiquitmyjob -

  14. A lot of people are bringing up the fact that Conan got a large severance package. In reality, he may have lost a bunch of money over this.

    Back when Conan’s NBC contract expired 5 years ago, he had the opportunity to jump ship to another network to start a new show (like Letterman did). The leverage he would have had at that point would have gotten him a much more lucrative deal from one of those networks than he could get today (after the recent debacle).

    Conan agreed to stay with NBC only if they could guarantee him the Tonight Show. The only way NBC could provide such a guarantee is in the form of a penalty that would be paid to Conan if they didn’t honor their contract and give him the Tonight Show.

    Jay Leno had an even bigger severance package coming if he was canned by NBC after they cancelled his 10pm show. Based on the reports I read, it was somewhere in the neighborhood of $80 million. NBC was intent on cancelling the failed Leno 10pm show no matter what, so getting rid of Conan was the cheaper option, plus they believe that Jay will be able to get his old, higher ratings back.

    So, getting rid of Conan and his staff and paying a $40 million severance package was the cheaper option for them. I heard the actual payment would have been even higher had they outright fired him. But since they weren’t really honoring their obligation to give him the Tonight Show (the lawyers would have argued that the 12:05 start was taking advantage of a loophole rather than honoring the intent of the contract), they had to pay the severance.

    Despite getting this payment from NBC, Conan would have made more money over the last 5 years if he jumped ship back when the Tonight Show deal was made. He wont’t be able to make the same deal today as he would have back then.

    So, in all, he most likely lost a bunch of money over this debacle.

    Comment by mtb12 -

  15. Ayn Rand nailed it back in the 50’s in Atlas Shrugged.
    There are 3 types of people in the world:
    Producers – Those that work and “earn their keep”.
    Moochers – Those that want your “babies” but have no “balls” of their own.
    Looters – Those that make rules or laws to take from or limit the Producers under the guise of doing it for the Moochers, which, according to the Looters, never had a fair chance.

    Comment by darthvrla -

  16. Pingback: NBC Fiasco With Conan and Leno | Dustin's Dispatch | Dustin Mooney's Weblog

  17. Mark,

    You are absolutely correct on the business aspect of these decisions.
    What you fail to realize is that these are not pieces on a board to be moved around. There are influential celebrity egos at play which use their respective shows as mouthpieces. What a dilemma for management! How often are you the third man out when it comes to internal corporate communication? When wealthy celebrity egos are in play literally ANYTHING can happen. Management should have foreseen the unforeseeable and had private meetings with all parties together however awkward that may have been. Also, have it secretly videotaped and use it as negotiating method. – Thats just me though, I am a different kind of bird:)

    Thanks for the post.

    Comment by fyneartist909 -

  18. Mr Cuban:
    I sympathize with your loyalty towards your friend Mr. Zucker.
    I understand the question “Why are we condemnning J. Zucker & NBC”
    I understand that you value “Risk” and so do we, Are you willing to believe that?
    The part that your post makes quite evident by your posing the question is that:
    1] Your class can’t fairly evaluate the difference between “Intelligent Risk” and sheer stupidity. Mr Zucker’s move reeks of it even Leno advised against it.
    2] That your class seems detached from our world and feel walled into a rare cabala of gifted few who only they can understand Free Enterprise, risk, performance and fair evaluation of talent and options
    3] that The Question you and your peers should be asking is: How can we learn to listen? Because NBC is in biz to please audiences not ram ideas into them [thats the Gov’s job] then be candidly surprised. Companies fail because they stop listening to their customers, simple.

    Comment by redserpent -

  19. – Mark –

    Let me ask you this: If you’re looking long term.. how long will Leno stay on the tonight show? Is this move worth it if he retires in 5 years? Would he even stay 10?

    What happens when you’re target audience becomes the youthful group that “gets” Conan’s brand of comedy? In 5 years will Leno beat Conan if he went to Fox? I’m not asking rhetorically.. I’d really like to get your opinion on this.

    Surely NBC is not looking to Jimmy Fallon to take over when Leno leaves.. Maybe Jimmy Kimmel? (seems unlikely) I don’t see this as a wise move by Zucker.. but who am I to say

    Comment by nayvcl -

  20. Described differntly you are saying Zucker is pursuing luck (rating uplift for lower costs of production) by taking a hedged risk with limited downside (if it does not work send Leno back to the late spot).

    The pursuit of luck by taking hedged risks.

    Comment by jasonbresnehan -

  21. I have a couple issues with your post.

    1) Your premise is wrong. People are not in an uproar that Zucker took the risk of putting Jay on at 10 and conan in the tonight show seat. They’re pissed that he has retracted his decision and mismanaged the situation in the process.

    2) You said there was little downside (only a couple 100,000 an episode) and tons of potential upside. Except one problem, they’ve majorly damaged the reputations of both jay, conan, and the tonight show through this debacle. Also, it is costing NBC upwards of $40 million to let Conan out of his contract. Sounds like way more downside than a few unsuccessful pilots.

    Zucker claimed himself to be a leader with guts, but if he truly was a leader and he had guts, he would have stood behind his decision he made originally. When the affiliates came crying that they were worried about this risky decision, he would have stood up for what he decided to do and said “trust me, I stand behind my decision. This will work, just give it time”. Instead, he cowered and tried to undo what he had done which cost NBC more than it ever bargained for. That’s not a leader. That’s a man who wanted to be a savior but was too scared to even try.

    Comment by taymag -

  22. Well it looks like we know how much it’ll cost NBC directly. $45 million. $33 million to Conan and $12 million to the rest of his staff.

    Good for him to get them that money.

    This is a big loser for Zucker, no ifs ands or buts about it.

    Comment by Noah -

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  24. Mark,
    I do not disagree that it was the right move financially for the company – and the bottom line is everything..

    I do, however, disagree with the final solution. Maybe because it is unprecedented in late night television, or maybe it’s just because I think Conan is more entertaining than Jay, but once the torch is passed to a new late night host – that’s it.

    I don’t know if ratings will rebound or not for the Peacock. I do think that when Conan joins the late night line up again later in the year that there will be some damage that NBC will not be able to recover from.

    Cory Howerton

    Comment by coffeewithcory -

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  26. What’s the difference between an Owning/Founding CEO and a Bureaucrat CEO: the Bureaucrat CEO has a Golden Parachute if the company goes down …the owner well 4 the owner the company is the parachute golden or nylon. Huuughe difference.

    Comment by redserpent -

  27. Pingback: Four Leadership Lessons From Leno Blunder « Customer Experience Matters

  28. the Bottom Line: We are sick of Corporate bureaucrats [managing CEO’s who are not owners nor founders] who are on the rampage of destroying American companies for the “Benefit of the shareholders” while they themselves own large amounts of shares, hellooo!! [is kwel 2own nit abuse], they gut Companies without any accountability and then shelter their Shananigans or stupidity behind the image that they represent the free market and represent courage, boldness and Hot blooded American risk taking, for that matter so does the Mafia.
    Botttom Line: If you CEO’s abuse your liberties you will cause to loose them for all of us and our descendants.. Grow a pair! police yourselves.

    Comment by redserpent -

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  31. @katiesp it’s not about being sympathetic to Conan. It’s about Zucker blowing $30 million and potentially ruining a cash-cow brand for them and hurting the network identity, and eviscerating the local affiliates cash cows and destroying the 10:00 hour’s cash value

    The support Coco nonsense is a sideshow and not what Mark was talking about.

    Comment by Noah -

  32. I get that it’s all about the bottom line in business. But I also believe that a man – or a network, in this case – is only as good as his word. NBC’s Jeff Zucker should be ashamed of himself for throwing O’Brien aside the minute things got tough. O’Brien stood by NBC for five years, waiting on the network to make good on its promise. He held up his end of the bargain. Too bad the same can’t be said for NBC.

    Comment by jzspeaks -

  33. Pingback: Jeff Zucker v. Leno/O’Brien

  34. You don’t get it, no one is condemning him for trying, it’s condemning him for his moves made and lak of accountability after he failed. Which by the way, all NBC has done is talked about how the Jay Leno show wasn’t a failure.

    Sure a lot of people had issue with a plan that was to cut production costs with a move that very likely would cut advertising revenue, piss off affiliates and lead to lower ratings for your entire post 10pm line up.

    No one condemned, they let him try his version of the “right move”, and he failed, and now instead of making a mess of one of the people who have made the network money for years, they pick the aging chin and throw the other away. NBC never addressed the biggest problem of networks. They allowed starts of sitcoms to make 1m an ep, that’s on them and their prior success. Stop paying it, plain and simple.

    Did anyone stop to think that maybe they could just spend hundreds of thousands on scripted content by hollywood newcomers waiting for their first break that would actually get far greater ratings than an aging talk show host? That would be forward thinking, this is not.

    Comment by Randall Jenkins -

  35. I so second that, one of the best article written in this huge mess. I don’t know what is Conan crying about. He got booted coz he didn’t deliver, and top of that he is getting paid 30 million for doing a bad job. Seriously, why is anyone sympathetic? Doesn’t it happen on main street all the time? except we don’t get $30 million!

    Comment by katiesp -

  36. Spot on.

    Although, it’s amusing to find such a practical logical deductions – from Mark Cuban, the self-made billionaire? Hello? – get slammed quite brutally.

    Well, I understand. It’s simple, people that tend to over-analyse things have no balls. They just could not get the notion that there’s no such thing as 100% success rate.

    Comment by ilparco -

  37. Mark,

    Great points, now stop fooling around with the trivial aspects of life and get serious……Buy the Pirates. They are only one person away from World Series contention and that person is hometown boy, Mt. Lebanon grad, Mark Cuban. The city needs you. According to your blog, it’s time to take a chance.

    Comment by schrecster -

  38. “No balls No babies” I like it!

    Zucker may not be “the man” for NBC but that wasn’t your point. I agree with what you said.

    If I were king of NBC I would have taken another step. The first time Jay used his show as a bully pulpit to rant about the way he was treated in all this, I would have fired him.
    My daddy has a saying, “The tail don’t wag the dog”
    I think by letting Leno get away with his nationally televised temper tantrums Zucker lost control of the situation. If Leno had issues with Zucker’s decision he should have gone to him directly, not snipe him from his show. I didn’t think much of Leno before all this, but think less of his character now.

    Comment by dodgydoug -

  39. No balls? No brains! How do you go into a risky proposition with extended risk? Moving Jay Leno to 10pm caused several problems from the get go.

    First, they lowered the expectations of how many viewers would tune into the 10pm hour, which hurt the local station affiliates, who count on NBC to bring a large audience into their local news programs. Of course, those lower ratings come with a halo effect, which includes hurting the new “Tonight Show’s” lead-in. Conan started off at a disadvantage from the get go.

    Second, how do you write a contract that promises Conan a $45 million dollar parachute, if the Tonight Show gets cancelled? Talk about risk, sheesh, more like stupidity. NBC bet everything on Jay Leno’s success and he failed from day one in the new strategy.

    Third, NBC missed out on developing or maintaining programs for the 10pm hour. Shows like Southland, which did decent ratings last spring could not be renewed because of content issues during earlier hours. What happens? It gets canceled and picked up right away by a competing cable network (TNT).

    The move was bad business all around. Now, a simple move to save some money in production costs is going to cost NBC a fortune to fix the problem. At least, they are looking to repair the already damaged primetime by giving the writer’s guild a virtual stimulus package.

    Get to work NBC, you have your work cut out for you. Can’t believe that it wasn’t that long ago, NBC was the envy of television, with an upscale and desirable audience that led all of television in ratings, top notch sporting events, comedies (Friends, Seinfeld, Will & Grace, among others), Dramas (ER and Law & Order when it was a new idea), and promise. During the Zucker era, they certainly did fall, racing with The CW towards cable like ratings. Not sure how one justifies big salaries for this sort of incompetence, but that seems to be American way of late in corporate America. Hope that changes soon.

    Comment by avm23 -

  40. This article proves a few things:
    1. Lots of money doesn’t make you smart about everything
    2. Being successful in one business category doesn’t make you master of all
    3. Big egos fail to see the truth

    Comment by manoflamuncha -

  41. I agree with your overall point. However, NBC would have been better off giving Paris Hilton a late night talk show. If your going to “shake things up” do it big. Both Conan & Leno appeal mostly to an older demographic. I’d like to see a hip, hot, younger woman take over late night. NBC needs fresh faces & ideas. The Tonight Show formula is quite stale.

    Comment by darryl3 -

  42. I applaud what Zucker did.. Taking risks is the right thing to do. Totally agree.

    The problem is that he didn’t have a successful fallback plan that would satisfy his audience and his valuable employees. It’s like doubling down and betting your bus fare on 11, without an alternative way to get home if you lose.

    Making innovative changes and trying new things is smart. Not having a fallback plan if they fail is the worst sort of hubris.


    Comment by jlouderb -

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  44. I have to agree with a lot of the voices here. The current outcry and general gnashing of teeth going on right now regarding Zucker and NBC isn’t because the guy made a gutsy decision. It’s because he made a gutsy decision and then chickened out prematurely.

    7 months i a ridiculously short trial run. Seinfeld wasn’t a hit in 7 Months. Late Night with Conan O’Brien wasn’t a hit in 7 months. Even Jay himself didn’t snag up all of Johnny Carson’s audience for a good while. When you make changes, ratings dip. That’s part of the game.

    And then, even if he gave the shows proper time and they still didn’t work out, this just wasn’t the way to do it. Now Zucker is losing one exceptional comedian entirely, and the other has probably lost too much of his audience to really recover.

    Risk is a good thing. Careless risks and hasty decisions are not.

    Comment by somecallmejim -

  45. I am all for the “Balls for Babies” theory in business, but it fails in certain industries, say, like healthcare and I believe currently in Hollywood. Reasons why it doesn’t work in Healthcare is obviously a whole other topic, but suffice it to say that too much is at stake for the whole risk/reward thing. On the other hand, the Hollywood news and entertainment environment completely promotes wreckless risk taking which is why you periodically see these “fiascoes” as well as great triumphs. Hell, risks promote the creativity process.

    But after a period of time, the sum of those great triumphs and failures needs to be accounted and assessed. The current crop of studio executives particularly at NBC, either seem out of touch or can’t keep their hands off their own balls at all. Studio executives do not understand the concept of not changing horses in midstream. Take for example, NBC’s hit show “Heros” which started off with huge potential and big ratings and because of its initial popularity, the studio siphoned off its producers, writers, and other personnel to be involved in other shows. Thereby taking so many personell risks, that not only are the new projects failures, the original ‘Heroes” itself is now doomed to fail. Then contrast that with a show like Seinfeld, which for all intensive purses was a failure in its first two seasons but left alone where it finally found its voice, and then became one of the most popular shows ever for NBC. In other words, Hollywood executives have no patience and at the first sign of trouble scramble to throw in one million solutions that all inevitably fail (See “Southland”). It seems that NBC, indeed Hollywood, is constantly taking a shotgun approach when it needs to go back to more of a sniper approach. That shouldn’t mean filling up your network with reality shows and Law&Order spin-offs because they are “ratings safe” but cultivating quality critically acclaimed baby balls like “Friday Night Lights” and “Community”

    Comment by kerrmudgeion -

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  48. I think I agree with near unanimous tone of the comments. Zucker tried to have his cake and eat it too. He then regurgitated it so we could all eat it as well. Any surprise what we got tasted horrible?

    If Leno was his horse he should have taken the bullet on Conan before the move. He did make a desperation move that would have looked brilliant if it worked, but when it didn’t it was time to cut Jay loose. To go back to Jay reeks of a lack of vision and leadership. The damage done to NBC these past two weeks will likely exceed whatever audience Jay gets back.

    The point that also confused me about this mess is thus: Who is going to host the Tonight Show when Jay retires and who is going to be watching it in 10-15 years if Jay is still the host?

    Conan’s 19-40 demographic was set to grow old with Conan over the long run. Jay appeals to the older set who won’t be around for long and won’t attract the kinds of advertising Conan could have attracted.

    I can’t remember where I read this, but NBC essentially traded Conan and $30 million for Jimmy Fallon. If the Mavs GM made this trade he would be fired so fast he wouldn’t have known what hit him.

    Here’s to hoping to see Conan on Comedy Central with a show!

    Comment by jonathanjoyce37 -

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  50. They never did give Conan an honest shake. Even at Conan’s current time-slot he STILL had Leno in front of him every night. They promised him that honored slot for year and then STILL stuck Leno in front of him from the very start. Conan kept his loyal followers but the traditional viewers for that program (the older crowd) got their experience earlier in the night with Leno’s similar show and had no reason to see similar topical jokes later on in the evening with Conan. He was screwed over from the start.

    Comment by Hil -

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  52. Love it, dude. You can’t move progressively in a self-defined direction if you throw 80% of your life away reacting to what the world expects from you and the other 20% defending that decision.

    Comment by enelsonmn -

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  55. And one last point. Leno doesn’t syndicate. Owning the show has zero residual value. Nobody watches reruns of a late night talk show. Nobody buys DVDs or VOD/streaming reruns of a late night talk show. So they don’t even get a cut of money down the road. Now they don’t get a lot of residual value from shows they don’t own, but on the shows they do own, there is a lot of money they can make in subsequent rights.

    This makes me realize that, though he may have gotten some short term cash if this had worked, he would have done very little to increase the overall value of the network.

    Comment by Noah -

  56. I like your points generally Mark but I think you’ve got this one totally wrong.

    1) This move DID cost NBC tens of millions. They’re going to have to pay Conan tens of millions to go away. Even if they get an offset against any new contract he might get it’ll still be $15-$20MM most likely.

    2) They screwed their local affiliates by killing the lead-in hour to the late local news which keeps many of those smaller stations afloat.

    3) They hurt the brand. And you should understand this better than most. NBC was at it’s most successful when they were a brand. Must See TV… now they are a laughing stock. With the exception of 30 Rock and The Office (which appears to be dying on the vine) they don’t have any programming on the flagship anyone wants to see. In order to launch the new shows in the fall they are going to have to spend huge on brand identity to get people back to the network. Furthermore, they’re being ragged on by everyone – the Golden Globes was an event where NBC had to host several hours of people mocking their own network.

    4) It’s going to cost more down the road. They are now scrambling to find top-tier dramas and they are going to be paying through the nose. It looks like they’re turning to Wells & Bruckheimer et al for content and that won’t be cheap. They’ll then have to ‘double down’ by spending a fortune off network to get people back. That means NBC is going to be transferring tens of millions of their own money to CBS and ABC to get those audiences back with their new programming.

    When you look at all these reasons, this was a terrible decision. Taking a risk? No, in fact it was being conservative. Instead of trying to find programs audiences would flock to and you could build a network around, Zucker tried to take the cheapest thing he had (a talk show) and fill five hours a week. Everyone said they knew they wouldn’t get as MUCH money as a drama but it would be ok because it was so cheap. That’s not swinging for the fences, that’s playing safe ground balls and it was foolish.

    Comment by Noah -

  57. Pingback: No balls, no babies - Stii ce vrei ?

  58. Never mind the bleeding heart crap of personalities, keep the eye on the Principles:Free Market. Zucker made a stupid mistake over and over, the excuses of adversity are rubish cuz the competition has the same adversities. His executive decisions are reminiscent of all the stupid decisions like GM, E. Kodak, Bausch & Lomb. Zucker moved Leno to 10pm against all evidence that comedians do not do well at that time because of his lack of artistic smarts to determine what is a good show does not compete with the Vision of other Network Execs. America as a public will not get how to solve our problems is temporary cuz soon the public will stop this stupid polarization that blinds smart people to confuse Free Market principles with ‘Oh he is an Exec=Represents Free Market=MyIdol= he can destroy a corporation under the excuse of “is good 4 shareholders{he he i’m the shareholders 😉 }. Read up on Buffet, Jobs, Bob Wegmans and many entrepreneurs that care for their companies, People that created companies not just some overpaid corporate bureaucrat labeled CEO, problably they are under the influence when they make decision ow else could you explain it. If it was the NFL he’d been sacked long ago even if he worked for Mr. Ralph Wilson[Bills]

    Comment by redserpent -

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  60. You are right mark, the decision to put leno at 10 speaks to a larger problem in America – but it’s not the problem of have “no balls”. It is in fact anything but that.

    Zucker’s decision to put Leno at 10 PM reflects an inability to make tough choices, a complete utter lack of conviction or principle. It reflects the desire to always have our cake and eat it too. It reflects this notion that we can solve important challenges with gimmicky band-aid solutions, that anyone with common sense could see through. These all describe Zucker’s handling of NBC late night.

    You are right to say that experimentation and risking failure is the source of true innovation, but Leno was anything but an example of daring creativity. Zucker did not put Leno on at 10 because he had some unique insight he had about what America was looking for at 10PM. Unlike reality TV, he was not creating a new format of TV – (he just took the exact same show and put it earlier).

    In the end Zucker had anything but “balls”. Having balls would have been picking a horse (Leno or Conan) and going with it and letting the other one go. Instead NBC wanted to have it both ways, it wanted to hedge its bets, and what do they get in the end? They are going to end up killing two of their biggest assets. Conan is going to leave to a rival AND Leno will never regain his status.

    This points out the other huge flaw in your argument. Remember that before all of this, NBC was number one in late night. Where was this need for daring invention? Where will it be after all of this? That is Zucker’s legacy.

    Comment by natsoti -

  61. The problem is that NBC is trying to have its cake and eat it, too. It already made a deal with Conan. It tried the gig with Leno, and failed. But now they’re trying to do a “take back” with Conan. Keeping both doesn’t really seem like an option at this point.

    I do agree that Leno deserves criticism here. Why didn’t *he* stand up to the network 4 years ago when they pushed him out in favor of Conan? Conan has the balls to stand up to NBC and make them honor the deal they have; Leno should have done the same thing four years ago. The right thing for Leno to do is jump ship to another network, IMHO, and leave Conan with The Tonight Show.

    Comment by seanjs -

  62. Can’t stand either one of them and have never watched, but your point is well taken. Years ago, as a lowly marketing manager for a major fast food chain, I was told by a VP that if I was successful 8 out of 10 times in my local programs I was not trying enough daring and innovation. Anyone can mimic success and maybe reach the same level, but it takes guts to try something different, knowing that if you fail it’s two or three steps back not one.
    As a former media buyer I can tell you I only cared about one thing:numbers. Tell me who is watching your show and if it meets my needs I buy. Otherwise I buy from the other guy.
    The fact that Conan has lost the time slot to Letterman is a lot more telling than how much money it’s going to cost to buy him out. A return in the ratings could make that money back in a few weeks.

    Comment by agman65 -

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  64. Mark,

    In principle I agree with your comments about “No Balls, No Babies”, but in this case this was move made out of desperation rather then strength. To use sports terminology this was difference between throwing a Hail Mary from your own 30 with 5 seconds remaining down by 6 versus going for it on 4th and 1 on your opponents 30 yard line with 2 mins remaining and up by 6. Both are risks but only one is a calculated risk, the other is a prayer.

    Act of Desperation
    The decision to move Leno to 10 has more to do with Zucker’s inability to produce hits at the time-slot as well as his failed hire of Ben Silverman. NBC had not had a winner at 10 since ER and more Law and Order spin-offs, shows that had become very long in the tooth. Without any new blood Zucker had little choice but throw the deep ball on Jay. Again, this was less a savvy business play and more a prayer that went unanswered.

    Throwing Affiliates Under the Bus
    Drama does well at 10 and comedy does well at 7. These have been the historic viewing habits of the general public. Even in the age of 150+ cable channels and the Internet, this conventional wisdom still holds. So given this why would Zucker not give Jay every chance to succeed and put his show towards the beginning of the evening? The easy answer is NBC ad revenue is heavily weighted towards the beginning of the evening. Why throw your own ratings into jeopardy and take this risk when if it doesn’t pay off you haven’t hurt the rest of your evening.

    Alienating Audiences
    Even if it may been the right ratings move to push Conan, the drama that has ensued has certainly damaged the Tonight Show franchise and hurt NBC viewership among Conan faithful (at least once he leaves). Now you have damaged goods in the Tonight Show and Jay Leno, have to pay Conan a very hefty going away present and created a monster for one of your enemies. Remember Leno did not start beating Letterman until the week Hugh Grant came on after his arrest.

    All this leads me to believe while the general principle you make I believe is accurate, it is not well applied in this situation.

    Comment by hangtime79 -

  65. What? We need more Zuckers? We need a guy that has a great idea, “moving something that cost a few thousand/episode instead of millions/episode to primetime” but totally screwing up the execution? No Zucker needs to move back a pitch/idea man like he was under then current CEO (pre Vivendi merge) where his ideas could be executed by smarter people. Moving Leno to the 10pm slot was stupid, all it did was split viewers of the highest rated late show. Setting up both Leno and Conan to fail. Also, how about no contingency for a possible failure?? If it fails you now have Conan and Leno in long term contracts? You have Fallon with a few more years under contract? I understand having a few balls to try something new, but CEOs these days feel they can do high risk things with no consequences upon failure. I would love a guy that takes risks. Risks are necessary for progress and innovation. But it should be standard business practice to provide a mitigation plan upon any high risk situation. Risk is good, but to take risk without any sort of plan upon failure is stupidity.

    Comment by Trae -

  66. I think you’re not paying enough attention to the affiliate end of the problem. If there weren’t any affiliates — if this conversation were about, I don’t know, TBS moving George Lopez’s late night show to 9 pm and then back to 11, sure, I’d agree with you, but this isn’t that.

    Leno at 10 was a disaster for the affiliates because it lowered news ratings at 11, which lowered the rates the affiliates could charge for ads in those newscasts (and of course, fewer viewers at 11 also meant fewer viewers for Conan at 11:35). Those news viewers may well come back if/when NBC starts programming quality dramas at 10 again, but it’s not going to be quick, and the damage to the affiliates’ bottom line has been done, and 2010 is going to be a lousy year for the NBC stations.

    Comment by researchrants -

  67. But there is room for criticism. Remember “New Coke”; that wasn’t ballsy and the complaints were not neutering American capitalism. The move has to make sense and be right. Don’t kill off our brand identity to try new things, test first and better.

    Comment by mwindahl -

  68. In other words, since the world is a rat race it’s OK to be a rat? Or, we should be moral and just so long as we get ours before the other guy?

    Comment by jrfinger -

  69. Terrible way to make your point, Mark. I can only assume you’re friends with Zucker and/or Leno, and don’t “get” Conan.

    As others have said, Zucker is reaping the consequences of his risk. “No balls, no babies” indeed, but sometimes there’s a miscarriage.

    Comment by Brade -

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  71. 1) Leno costs less money and makes less money in return. No one’s buying Jay Leno Show Season One on DVD. No one’s buy syndication rights. And his audience skews old so they aren’t getting the key demos which drive in the highest advertising prices.

    2) The poor ratings of Leno led to poor ratings for local news and then poor ratings for the Tonight Show. If you put 5 different scripted shows on at 10pm, some will be popular and some not. But at least that’s better than 1 show that’s not popular. A new host needs a BOOST in order to create an audience.

    Sure, if it works he’s a genius… but why do you make the risk on your biggest property? Why not take a “risk” at 8pm where you aren’t doing squat? Or put something on at 7pm where usually it’s just gossip shows. That’s a risk that’s worth taking. Damaging the Tonight Show, the flagship show for your network? Unnecessary and stupid risk.

    Comment by mateo2 -

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  73. One more thing — if the possibility of being blasted in the blogosphere prevents an exec from doing something that he is sure in his bones is the right thing to do, is he worth a damn?

    Isn’t the solution for Jeff Zucker to not give a damn what the blogosphere thinks, rather than lecture the internet that we should be nice to risk-taking execs like Jeff Zucker, because if we’re mean to them then they might not want to take risks anymore?

    Grow some balls, indeed.

    Comment by johnmcg -

  74. And also, aren’t we currently in an economic crisis in part because corporate executives took huge risks chasing after profits? And didn’t the government have to use a whole bunch of our money to bail these firms out?

    Yes, that’s a simplified version of what happened, but given that, should we be surprised that our culture has moved toward punishing executives who take huge risks that don’t work out?

    Comment by johnmcg -

  75. This won’t make me like Leno any more than I already don’t, and I think the way both Leno and Zucker have handled this thing is nothing less than completely shameful. And that’s just based on what’s out in the public — I’m sure what’s been said and done behind closed doors on all sides has been far, far worse!

    Regardless, Mr. Cuban is absolutely right here. It was a ballsy move, and it could have easily turned into a very big win for both both Zucker and Leno. And even for Conan.

    The only way to make sure you’ll never fail is to never try. But then you’ll never succeed either.

    Comment by senszz -

  76. The reason certain actions or decisions are defined as “risks” are that if they fail, there are consequences to go with them. You can’t take a “risk”, have it fail, and be back exactly where you were before. You stand to lose something; maybe credibility, maybe money, maybe your job.

    You seem to be suggesting a world where we can take chances, fail, and come out unscathed. So while you may be correct in commending Jeff Zucker for his balls and his desire to “solve problems with original solutions,” it failed. Plain and simple. Now Zucker must face his consequence: NBC’s lineup is worse off than it was before (I’m not sticking around for Jimmy Fallon after Leno).

    But worse than that, to your point of being commended for looking to “change the game,” Zucker and NBC have lost serious credibility in this ever changing media landscape. The next few years will see them less likely to take the risks that could potentially change the game, and rather, sit back and wait for change from someone else.

    Take risks. But understand the consequences of failure first.

    Comment by coopdodoubleg -

  77. I agree with petermag, which is disagreeing with you. Also, it did cost NBC $$$. HUGE $$ to move LENO to primetime. Between $35M and $45M!!!! Not to mention, they lost one of the best comedians of our generation… who will probably go to another network and compete against NBC in the late night hour. There’s a difference between balls and stupidity.

    Comment by howieK -

  78. If Zucker had balls he would have canceled Leno’s show and terminated his contract, freeing him, not Conan, to go elsewhere. Putting Leno back at The Tonight Show is NBC trying to hang on to their glory days when Friends, ER and Seinfeld ruled the roost.

    He should have said, sorry Jay, this didn’t work, best of luck to you and your cars, then built programming out across the board that would have increased ratings, pacified local affiliates and help Conan build his audience. But he’s even failed in that department as NBC has sunk to last place well before this blew up in his face.

    And people can spare me the analysis on how Conan’s ratings were bad compared to Letterman and how Leno did better, faster when he took over from Carson. Leno and his craptastic shtick didn’t have to compete with Hulu, DVRs and other advancements that shorten our attention spans.

    Him and Ebersol throwing a hissy fit over the very public bitch slap he’s been getting from Conan and everyone else shows he lacks vision.

    Comment by PJ Mullen -

  79. Zucker failed. He now has lost one of his rating pulls (Conan) when he could have had both Conan and Leno. He should have brushed up on his game theory before making this decision.

    Comment by tuler -

  80. Cause Zucker has a terrible track record thus far? Because he has driven NBC entertainment from first to fourth? You would have canned him as GM long ago.

    Comment by quigleymar -

  81. Isn’t this whole fiasco costing NBC somewhere around $200 million dollars to sort out? Sounds pretty bad to me.

    Comment by andythesaint -

  82. If you double-down on 11, and draw a 2, you still lose your money, right? The casino doesn’t throw some extra chips your way because you risked, does it?

    Of course, what Zucker did was more like doubling down with a 12.

    It seems to me that if you are a TV executive, and you try a grand experiment, and that experiment fails in a way that was predicted by someone like Bill Simmons, then that isn’t behavior that ought to be rewarded.

    I thought it was an interesting experiment, and it was kind of fun to see how it would turn out. But you don’t get paid for making things interesting; you get paid for results.

    Comment by johnmcg -

  83. I agree — so what if it didn’t work. And I agree that more people need to take more chances. But the one mistake he made is this: He didn’t let Conan in on the fact that this was an “experiment.” Now he’s dealing with mud in his face for having lofty expectations and subsequently a PR and media backlash. They were a little too sure of themselves. If you’re going to experiment, make sure everyone is in on it so when something blows up, you’re protected. Now Conan is pissed off and is probably going to take his wares, along with his substantial audience, elsewhere.

    Comment by Nick -

  84. I agree with your point about risk-taking in general and trying to shake things up but what Zucker SHOULD have done is exactly what he did in moving Jay to 10pm and then figured out what else to do with him when it didn’t work. He should leave Conan in place at the Tonight show to find his audience. Conan never had a chance with a crappy pre-news lead-in.

    Use that creativity to find somewhere else for Jay if you want to keep him so badly. I am betting Jay’s former audience won’t follow him back to 11:35 when he is put back in place.

    Comment by nicsboy2 -

  85. “No balls, No babies” maybe. But if you don’t stick around the raise the kid aren’t you just a pussy?

    Agreed, the answer to old problems will always be aggressive outside-the-box thinking. But people aren’t trying to castrate Zucker, they’re pissed Conan wasn’t given a fair shot. Even a new series with middling ratings gets a whole season, sometimes a second to take root. The ratings for Seinfeld sucked for 3 seasons. So yeah, maybe Zucker has balls, but they’re not big enough to stick to his guns.

    The problem in this case is a lack of faith in their own plan. 7 months isn’t long enough. They picked Conan for a reason, he’s good, and his fans are faithful, that is what the outcry is about, not some sort of ‘don’t have new ideas Jeff Zucker’ movement. It’s about having the balls to stick with a new idea for long enough to let it work, rather than balking at the first sign of wavering success. Esp in his (mine too) industry we can’t expect everything to come out Avatar.

    Late Night TV is all a matter of routine. The face on the TV is the same every night, this part of why it works, and why people are so faithful. So naturally a shift is going to result in a dip in ratings. 7 months just isn’t giving Conan his due chance to make something of it.

    Comment by thekerp -

  86. Are you crazy? “we need more Jeff Zuckers.” The guy single handedly took the #1 Network on TV into last place and I’m not talking about this year. It’s been 4+ years! I agree, you need to take some risks, but it does you no good if not one of them payoff. When Biggest Loser is your biggest show, you got problems. Not sure why your head is up his ass but you need to to get it out.

    Comment by jfeld111 -

  87. if zucker had balls he would have fired conan and replaced him with leno. he didnt. he tried to pacify everyone and in the process pissed off everyone.

    if zucker had balls he would have simply kept leno in the first place and told conan that they screwed up when they promised the show to him.

    the guy with balls is conan. he stood for something and risked his career and money on principle. the easy route for conan would have been to accept the 12:00 slot and even the eventual move to 12:30 for him. that’s what leno would have done. leno will do anything to stay in the spotlight and keep the cash coming in. he’s a sham of a man. he is the anti-balls guy who stands for nothing.

    i admire your pursuit of leadership with balls. but this is not an example of it. zucker is going to lose his job. its not cuz he has balls. its cuz he doesnt know what the viewing public want.

    Comment by petermag -

  88. I’m completely open to being convinced I’m wrong on this, but you haven’t done it.

    If Isiah Thomas decided that the solution to the Knicks’ woes was to play Nate Robinson at center, it might be unconventional, and if you chose to look at that decision—and only that one—you might be able to convince yourself that it was smart, and, by extension, he was good at his job.

    I think that’s what you’ve done here, but I’ll know for sure the next time the Mavericks take the floor.

    Comment by Bryan -

  89. Leno’s show would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour instead of 2mm, 3mm or more per hour.

    As my wife’s boss commonly says, “a million here, a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

    Thanks, Mark, for remembering Joe Average, who makes $40K/year, and could only dream of money like this.

    Comment by willkessel -

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