Laughing at Leno

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 Simpsons" 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



The Cosby Show


Family Ties

Night Court


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.