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Laughing at Leno

October 23rd, 2009 - 1:53 pm

General Motors, the National Broadcasting Corporation — it’s getting tough to remember which is which. One used to make good cars, the other made “Cheers.” That much is easy to remember. Here’s where it gets cloudy:

For the first time, NBC’s Leno experiment was beaten in the ratings by a non-sports program that wasn’t airing on the Big Four networks.

FX’s critically acclaimed outlaw motorcycle drama “Sons of Anarchy” bested “Leno Show” on Tuesday evening in the advertiser-coveted adult demo — drawing a 2.05 rating among adults 18-49 to Leno’s 1.8. “Anarchy” also topped ABC’s “The Forgotten” (1.9).

A niche show on a niche network just beat out one of the most popular entertainers on what used to be the powerhouse network. This is what happens when you fail to compete, when you effectively give up.

Let me explain — there’s another lesson here, which relates to GM.

The Big Three (then Four) TV networks used to have extremely powerful brands. ABC was the family network — upstart, brainless, safe. CBS was the Tiffany network, all about the quality programing. Fox was renegade and subversive, riding “The Simpson” to fame and fortune. And NBC was middlebrow — smart, but not too smart, and more than a little yuppie.

NBC’s Thursday nights ruled the airwaves (and advertiser’s dollars) for twenty years. And almost entirely with shows set in New York City or Chicago. The only two exceptions I can think of were “L.A. Law” (you can guess the location) and “Cheers,” which took place in a Boston bar.*

And NBC wasn’t afraid to flout conventions, either. “Hill Street Blues” frequently crossed the line — chasm? — between “gritty police television drama” and “theater of the absurd.” “Friends” was a soap opera disguised as a sitcom. “The Cosby Show” might have been the first show about a black family that wasn’t about a black family. From about 1980 on, NBC’s brand could probably be best described as “the risk-taking network.”

It paid off handsomely for NBC’s corporate parents, too. Thursday night is the most expensive weeknight for advertisers, as it’s the night closest to the weekend. Movie studios — especially big spenders — could be counted on to spend their biggest bucks on Thursdays, just in time for Friday openings.

So NBC did everything it could to own Thursdays, and for twenty years did just that. Look at this list:

YumHill Street Blues
L.A. Law
E/R
Cheers
The Cosby Show
Seinfeld
Family Ties
Night Court
Frasier
Will & Grace

Some of the best TV made over a 20 year-period, all on one network, all on Thursdays.

Then the competition heated up, and NBC forgot its brand.

By the turn of the century, the anchor programs of NBC’s Thursday nights (Friends, W&G, E/R) had all gone stale, and NBC had lost its nerve to take the risks necessary to develop and nurture fresh replacement shows. “Hill Street” was still going pretty strong at the end. “Cheers” went out on a high note. But “E/R” had been barely watchable for four or five entire seasons before NBC finally, mercifully pulled the plug.

NBC first forgot its brand, then it forgot how to compete. Now it’s losing to F/X, which I wasn’t even sure was a real network until just now.

So how does this lesson apply to General Motors?

Government MotorsGM had eight brands, and pissed them all away. Then they forgot how to compete. And now they’re in a receivership of sorts. Here’s the short version: Cadillac was “the standard of the world.” Then it became a tarted-up Chevy. Pontiac was the outlaw performance brand. By the ’90s, a Pontiac was a Chevy with plastic body cladding. “Buick” meant understated looks (and wealth), then it changed into a de-contented Caddy (which was a tarted-up Chevy). Saturn was supposed to be the import-fighter brand, but eventually devolved into rebadged Opel imports. Olds? High tech to… I have no idea. (It’s no coincidence that Olds was the first brand GM killed off, ten years ago now.)

And everyone knew what SAAB and Hummer were, but no one could figure out what they were doing as part of General Motors — not even the folks at General Motors.

Anyway, you get the idea. Eventually, GM just gave up. Witness: The Chevy Aveo. If that’s not an unconditional surrender, then even the French don’t know what one is.

What, Me Worry?Now we’re seeing the exact same thing happen to NBC. The Peacock soiled its brand so badly, that when “E/R” finally died, not only did it not have a replacement in the wings, it didn’t even try. NBC’s brass just said, “Aww, screw it — put on Leno.”

There’s nothing wrong with Leno. There’s nothing wrong with Miracle Whip on Wonder Bread, either — it’s just not very exciting. The network that used to give us genre-busting sitcoms from 8-10PM, and cutting-edge hourlong dramas in the 10PM slot, took the blandest personality from latenight TV and used him to redefine what it meant to be on NBC Primetime. NBC’s new brand is a yellow chicken on a white flag of surrender.

F/X might be tiny, but it seems to know its niche — it has a brand, in other words. F/X is also known for “Nip/Tuck,” and “Damages” as well as “Sons of Anarchy.” All are not-very-nice dramas that take chances. (Not always successfully. The writing at “Nip/Tuck” finally left all consistency and believability behind, and I quit watching in the middle of Season Four.)

And so it comes as no great surprise that the funky network with the funky lineup has flipped the Peacock the bird.

*Where the hell was “Family Ties” set?

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