The escalating O'Brien/Leno feud illustrates the growing disconnect between a generation of Hulu-streaming, time-shifting viewers, and the networks and advertisers desperate to reach them.
By Ryan Danks
Published January 15, 2010
I'm sure most readers know about the current late night feud going on between Jay Leno/NBC and Conan O'Brien. (For those that don't, there's a brief synopsis of events up to this point at the end of the article.)
I'm a big Conan fan; I love his irreverent, self-deprecating style of humour, and I think that given a real chance he would have thrived on the Tonight Show.
Leno on the other hand, I find bland, boring and generally unfunny. Now you probably don't care what TV shows I watch (as is your right) but advertisers sure do.
I'm part of the 18-34 age bracket which advertisers covet most of all, its also the age bracket which is most socially entwined with the Internet and the one spearheading the massive surge of web based support for Conan. Facebook pages like I'm With CoCo (160,000+ members) and Team Conan (110,000+ members) are only a couple of examples of the overwhelming support Conan has online.
In contrast, the largest Team Leno group I could find has less than 1000 members. (All member counts are accurate as of Jan. 15/10)
This got me wondering: if Conan has such a large, dedicated fan base, primarily made up of the exact group advertisers target, why were his ratings so disappointing to NBC? And why would NBC keep Leno, who is apparently so unpopular with that same group?
Conan's low ratings in older age groups can most likely be explained by Jay Leno's 10pm show retaining viewers that would have ordinarily kept watching the Tonight Show, but what about the younger age groups?
This National Post article blames the viewing habits of "Generation Facebook".
Those behind the groundswell of online support for O'Brien may in fact love the new Tonight Show, but then they may love watching it on Hulu or YouTube the next morning. Ironically, it may be his fans' viewing habits that lead to his eventual demise.
Mark Medley's partially correct. I very rarely stayed up to watch Conan at 11:30pm but I religiously DVRed it each night to watch it (commercial free) the next day.
Particularly funny clips on Hulu or YouTube get passed from friend to friend and become conversation points around the 21st Century water cooler. This type of viewing poses a huge challenge for advertisers and content producers. For the first time in the history of television, the viewers have more control over what and how they watch than the broadcaster does.
Also quoted in the article is Jimmy Fallon:
Time doesn't really matter to me. We're in a different age. Time is like ... I don't even know what time Jersey Shore is on. It doesn't matter - I'll see it.
I'm sure when a show airs doesn't matter to Jimmy Fallon, it doesn't to me, or anyone else who is used to watching TV on their terms. The problem is that it does matter to advertisers and broadcasters.
The traditional measures of viewership don't work in this new commercial skipping, time-shifted world and without those measures, advertisers don't know who's seeing their ads and broadcasters don't know what to charge for the ads.
This uncertainty is what led to The Jay Leno Show looking like it airs on public access, and the slew of "reality" programs - shows that can be produced so cheaply that they make money regardless of ratings.
Declining ratings aren't the fault of "Generation Facebook", but rather the fault of advertisers and broadcasters not keeping pace with technology and clinging to antiquated and generally obsolete methods to track viewers.
New metrics need to be created to more accurately gauge both the breadth of viewership (number of viewers), and the depth of viewership (how passionate individual fans are), because this problem will only get worse with each new generation.
The technology to measure this already (sort of) exists in the form of "On Demand" programming and streaming TV sites like Hulu, but these statistics are usually disregarded by broadcasters (though with ComCast buying NBC, tracking On Demand requests for ratings purposes might become more common).
These technologies easily give a count of the number of times a certain episode has been watched, and coupled with demographic data mined from the required registration forms, give more accurate and timely viewer-ship information than the Nielson's ever did.
Eventually, (perhaps in The Year 3000) I believe viewers will subscribe to specific shows rather than channels, allowing networks to make their money by selling fewer (non-skippable) ads but ones that are highly targeted to the specific group of subscribers, thus creating a more effective advertisement.
Then the networks could track the success of their shows based solely on the people who are actually watching rather than the current estimations of the Neilson system. A show's rating would no longer be skewed by "estimations" or by the performance of adjacent programming but would entire based on its own quality.
But for now, I'm with CoCo and where ever he ends up I'll keep watching him on my terms whether the advertisers count me or not.
In 2004 Jay Leno negotiates a new contract with NBC. Not wanting to lose either Conan or Jay to another network, NBC offers Jay his own hour long show at 10pm and Conan will take over the Tonight Show starting in 2009.
Conan and his entire operation move from New York to Los Angles and his first Tonight Show airs on June 1, 2009. The first "Jay Leno Show" airs on September 14.
Jay's ratings at 10pm were lacklustre at best, proving to be a terrible lead-in for both the 11pm local news and Conan's Tonight Show.
After only seven months, NBC bows to the pressure from its affiliate stations and announces that it will cancel the Jay Leno Show, give Jay a new show at 11:35pm and shift the Tonight Show and the rest of the late night lineup back 30 minutes.
Jay agrees to the deal but Conan releases a heart-felt open letter in which he refuses to go along with the plan.
As of the time of writing (Jan. 15/10) there isn't any hard information about the negotiations between the three parties but the rumour mill seems to agree that Jay will get the Tonight Show back and Conan will leave NBC.(hopefully for his own show on another network sooner rather than later).
By mollyr (anonymous) | Posted January 15, 2010 at 15:52:29
I agree, if they don't start picking up on the way their demographic watch TV, they might as well just go out of business - or cater their audience to the 65+ generation who still may be watching non-interactive television on a schedule someone at the station deems appropriate. Sounds like they are keeping Jay Leno, so I take it they are going to keep their senior citizen audience and start advertising for retirement communities and the like.
By TooLoo (anonymous) | Posted January 15, 2010 at 16:12:31
I agree. We watch Conan after school. BTW what were the bosses at Leno thinking when they booked Kimmel for 10 at 10? Just an illustration of how out of sync these guys are. O'Brien, on the other hand, is sharp and witty and shredding NBC/Leno mercilessly because he does it in a clever, self-deprecating manner that is funny but not offensive. The generational gap defines this more than anything. Good luck Jay. You're fan base can watch you from the nursing home.
By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted January 15, 2010 at 16:35:49
BTW what were the bosses at Leno thinking when they booked Kimmel for 10 at 10?
My god that was absolutely devastating for Leno. To me it seemed somewhat scripted at first, then Kimmel must have gone off script, and Leno just had this "deer in the headlights" look as Kimmel destroyed him.
By JonC (registered) | Posted January 15, 2010 at 18:54:35
Listen Lucy, I'm not Charlie Brown was my favourite line of the Kimmel interview
Comment edited by JonC on 2010-01-15 17:55:03
By the skull (anonymous) | Posted January 16, 2010 at 05:43:07
Ill always watch Conan, no matter what channel or medium he ends up on. Screw Jay Leno and his boring elementary-school comedy. You can totally tell he doesnt really craft his art. This is just another example of these big networks NOT GETTING IT. They never will, and they will suffer in the long run. Good riddance. He'll find a better gig.
By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted January 16, 2010 at 23:13:53
Talk about not getting it. The whole idea behind TV scheduling is not to broadcast "good" shows but rather to get people to watch ads. That is what pays for the shows. A lot of viewers believe it is their right to get free TV. Surprise! Their is no such thing as free TV. Watching on You Tube or PVR the next day without the commercials does not count since since it does not pay for the show.
I realize I am totally at arm's length here since I do not watch either show. (nor most others)
The current model of television broadcasting seems to be at the sunset of its lifespan and I am looking forward to see what replaces it.
By JonC (registered) | Posted January 17, 2010 at 09:07:41
That is the train of thought that is going to sink the networks. You can't make people watch ads anymore and it isn't just youth. My folks got a PVR this winter and haven't watched an ad since. Why would they? Either the networks need to integrate the ads into the shows or start charging more to the cable company to broadcast the channel. Of course, the whole buffet model of the broadcast is most likely doomed with an a la carte model the likely end scenario.
By michaelcumming (registered) - website | Posted January 18, 2010 at 10:17:30
We don't watch much TV because our reception is terrible, we don't want to pay for cable and mostly because watching TV (like surfing the web) is mostly a waste of time (except when it isn't). If we were to buy a high-def TV and get an over-the-air signal this situation might change for us.
Waiting for a specific time of the week to be fed something that is usually not nutritional does not maximize my happiness. The broadcast TV model has never appealed to me much. Having it served up a la carte would help things a little. The main problem is that what is served is not what I like to consume - except in small quantities.
By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted January 18, 2010 at 13:23:43
A lot of viewers believe it is their right to get free TV.
Nowhere in my article do I say anything about people "believing its their right to get free TV". All I was pointing out is that due to several technological advancements, (enabled in some cases by subsidiaries of the same companies which own the networks), the current model for ad driven TV is starting to fail and that the viewer now has more control than the content producer/provider.
Watching on You Tube or PVR the next day without the commercials does not count since since it does not pay for the show.
That's exactly my point. Why aren't content producers finding a way to exploit those potential revenue streams? The technology exists, all it needs is someone with an ounce of cajones to make the attempt.
As an aside, I thought I'd update the member counts I mention in the article as of the time of this comment's posting:
Team Conan - 168,000+
I'm With CoCo - 322,000+
Team Leno - 2,000+
Comment edited by UrbanRenaissance on 2010-01-18 12:24:41
By JonC (registered) | Posted January 18, 2010 at 20:07:02
This chart also points out something else, that network viewing peaked 30 years ago.
By B. Leary Eyed (anonymous) | Posted January 19, 2010 at 14:16:29
I dig the analysis, but I think it misses one thing, that the choice of media not only affects viewing times but, with so much more content it also affects the size of the total audience for any one show. It's not enough for big networks to try to control the dispersal of their content through the internet, even if they are able to apply their advertising from the original broadcast through to the final viewed segment. Many people more people are watching something else entirely. We cans also see the effects in the current "battle" between Canadian broadcast networks and cable suppliers. I mean, when did the networks ever care about local broadcasting except when appearing before the CRTC?
This does have greater implications. Those advertisements used to push mass-produced products through the marketplace, products that used to be made by, well, some of the folks working assembly lines here in Hamilton. This analysis paints one of the paths to the recent economic breakdown, and how unlikely it is that such manufacturing stuff is ever going to return to its dominant economic role. But this analysis also points out the need to attach some form of economic structure to the information-based economy, or some significant changes in economic structure. Recordings, producing things from experiences, don't seem to be able to do that and advertisers are also flumoxed. Moral appeals and legal demands won't do the job.
This trend to public media control also affects the ability to build political consensus. The weaknesses of "representative" democracy become increasingly evident, Parliament increasingly irrelevant. While proroguing the place is, I think, a symptom, I doubt it's a step toward participatory democracy. But that's just me. The challenge is there, like it or not.
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