Tuesday, January 12, 2010

My City of Ruins

Maybe it's time I made something clear.

Back when I was a cocky 23-year-old producer at WSVN in Miami, I was heavily courted by a guy named Don Browne who at the time was the general manager of NBC's owned and operated station in Miami, WTVJ. He badly wanted me to jump ship and become his 11pm producer and he was willing to blow big, billowing clouds of smoke up my ass to make it happen; among the compliments he lavished on me during one particular power lunch between the two of us was a claim that he saw in me the next Jeff Zucker. Now in 1993, Zucker was considered NBC's new boy wonder -- named executive producer of the Today Show at just 26-years-old. So even though I had basically stumbled into TV and had yet to take the entire industry the least bit seriously, I understood that a big-gun at NBC -- and Browne was a Jedi Master in the ways of the Peacock, having been the executive VP of news for NBC at one point -- mentioning me in the same breath as Zucker wasn't the kind of flattery you simply shrugged off. And I didn't -- even though I made the choice to stay at WSVN briefly before heading to Los Angeles to work for KCBS.

I say that I didn't shrug it off because I always kept Browne's praise in the back of my mind and in late 1997 when it became clear that I had allowed myself to become little more than comfortable in my discomfort at KCBS, I put out feelers to Don Browne -- who had expressed a genuine desire to keep in touch with me and promised to always take my call if I felt like I wanted to talk about my career, the business, whatever -- and sure enough, he welcomed the idea of making room for me at WTVJ. As it turned out, the station was going through a regime change, with another NBC wunderkind, 28-year-old Ramon Escobar, having just taken the reins as news director. Browne flew me to Miami, had me meet with everyone and made me an offer I honestly couldn't refuse -- which kind of befit his status as an intimidating Godfather within the NBC power structure.

I'll always be glad I made the decision to go to WTVJ, as it remains one of the best work experiences of my career -- the people there more like family than coworkers. The thing to keep in mind, though, is that one of Don Browne's major selling points during his attempt to draft me was that I wouldn't be working for just anyone -- I'd be working for NBC. To hammer that reality home, he even flew me to New York City to visit 30 Rock; sit in on the Today Show; make it crystal clear that I was going to be a part of something extraordinary. The entire experience was exhilarating -- and it marked the first time that I truly appreciated the career that I had stepped in by accident, the abilities that I had largely taken for granted up to that point.

Bottom line: I was proud to work at NBC. So proud in fact that I continued to work for the company when I moved back out to L.A. with the wife that I had met at WTVJ. So proud that I couldn't have been more thrilled that my shot at personal and professional rebirth and redemption in the wake of 9/11 came from MSNBC and my former news director, Ramon Escobar.

I can occasionally be a bit of a feisty pain in the ass as an employee -- I believe that most decent newspeople are -- but that doesn't mean that I didn't spend years thinking of NBC as my home. It was, to me at least, a shining beacon of terrific programming and rock solid journalism, and one that I felt honored to be a part of.

I bring this up because it should be obvious by now that I pick on NBC quite a bit in the stuff that I write here and at the Huffington Post. Many regular readers have noticed and even confronted me on the seemingly curious fact that I take aim at NBC Universal far more than I even do Fox News Channel.

So I guess I felt like it was time to explain myself: Call it tough love -- borne mostly out of sadness, frustration and, occasionally, outright anger.

Over the past few years, I've watched NBC go from being the network I believed was consistently devoted to excellence above every other consideration -- committed to the notion that, as Don Browne used to say, "First be best, then be first" -- to one that will sacrifice not just quality but any and all ethical considerations in a relentless pursuit of profit. Don't get me wrong, as a company NBC is in the business of making money and there's nothing at all wrong with that -- it just used to achieve that end by offering audiences the best programming and news coverage on television. It was best, which is why it was first, which is why it made money. But somewhere along the line network executives -- particularly and ironically Jeff Zucker, who was named CEO of NBC TV in 2005 and then CEO of the NBC Universal empire in 2007 -- decided that cash would be the only consideration, that it could be amassed without even earning it by means of great shows and a consistently above-the-board news operation at the highest levels of management, and that the rise of cable and non-traditional media provided the perfect excuse for making this kind of major paradigm shift. The shareholders likely thought Zucker was brilliant for expanding NBC's properties across several platforms then turning each into a giant promotional machine for the others until "NBC product placement" was all any NBC show or network was good for; for hiring a worthless, self-obsessed hack like Ben Silverman to dumb down prime time; for bringing in bags of money while slashing costs, culminating in the cynical for-profit-only ploy that put Jay Leno in prime time five nights a week. Unfortunately, while get-rich-quick schemes tend to work well in the short-term, they can be devastating long-term -- and Zucker's not so myopic that he shouldn't have realized this about the business model he'd adopted. There was no meat in the tasty-looking sandwich he was serving day after day, and with the collapse of the Leno show, the impending unceremonious exit of Conan O'Brien and the P.R. cataclysm both have caused for the network, almost everyone, maybe even the mighty shareholders looking down from Olympus, can now see that.

What's happened at NBC -- already a perennially anemic network -- over the past week has been, quite simply, one of the most shameful fiascoes in the history of modern broadcast television. We're talking one for the ages. Pushing out Leno to keep Conan O'Brien was questionable enough a move; giving Leno a prime time slot despite the threat of rebellion from the affiliates whose revenue stream you'd be damming up, just because it'd be a corporate cash cow, was worse; pulling the plug to save a giant deal with Comcast Cable was worse still. Now this: taking back the show that was given to Conan to keep him from jumping ship all to keep Leno from jumping ship -- forcing Conan to gracefully and humbly bow out because he refuses to tarnish the good name of a legendary NBC brand, one that NBC itself apparently has no compunction about making radioactive. It's breathtaking, sociopathic incompetence. It doesn't even make good business sense because, once again, the short-term fears of the twitchiest suits might be salved -- Leno's deadly show at 10pm is six feet under and Conan's underperforming stint on The Tonight Show is cut short -- but the chilling effect that this will have not only on audiences but on any young talent from which you might hope to cultivate loyalty is utterly decimated. Why should anyone trust anything an NBC executive says from here on out?

This is the problem NBC Entertainment Chief Jeff Gaspin is facing right now as he tries to clean up the mess and duck the fire caused by the spectacular implosion of NBC's 10pm and late night lineup (to say nothing of what was left of the network's tattered reputation) and the exit of one of its marquee talents -- the disaster that "boy wonder" Jeff Zucker essentially created. And where is Zucker while all this is going on -- while Gaspin's head is in the crosshairs? Who knows. He hasn't made a public appearance or granted an interview since the crap started rolling downhill last week; I'd like to think that he's in a bunker somewhere honorably falling on his sword, but given that his contract was just bafflingly renewed for another three years, that seems an unlikely scenario. Make no mistake, though -- that's exactly what needs to happen.

I'm willing to concede that Jeff Zucker's meteoric rise was made possible only by his seemingly bottomless reservoir of creative short-term fixes for whatever problems he was confronting at any particular moment, and that the shareholders had demanded that he cut costs and increase profits. But a willingness to take potentially profitable gambles, while admirable, comes with an inherent risk: Somebody needs to pay when a poorly thought-out experiment -- a shockingly obvious "quick fix" -- fails to the tune of millions of dollars, the loss of a bankable star, and a public relations nightmare that has the potential to threaten a proposed mega-merger. And there's no doubt that the person who should pay for this instantly legendary clusterfuck is the man at the top who instigated the whole thing: Jeff Zucker.

That likely won't happen, of course. In fact, if you believe what David Carr of the New York Times posted on Twitter yesterday, behind the scenes Zucker is walking around blaming Conan for letting him down by delivering a low-rated show. If this is true, it's astonishing while, strangely, not the least bit surprising -- and it makes Zucker the personification of all that's wrong with corporate America these days. No one takes responsibility; everyone passes the buck; it's always the fault of the victim; and when everything falls apart and the whole thing goes to shit while you're in charge, you get to keep your high-paying job and arrogantly pretend like nothing ever happened.

Here's how it should work: You roll the dice and lose -- you pay up and leave. It feels like anything but a coincidence, though, that neither the guy who created this disaster -- Zucker -- nor the guy who will immediately benefit from it on the air -- Leno -- has the good sense to put humility above ego and step aside. Neither, apparently, will accept the consequences of his actions or an unlucky turn of the cards.

For Leno it's really no surprise: He's a good guy but he's been coasting on ironically aimless ambition, unable to tell you why he wants what he wants only that he wants it, for years. But Zucker shouldn't be able to delude himself; the wreckage piled around him is simply too deep to ignore. NBC is now in ruins, and it happened under his watch and because of his actions.

I never did turn out to be Jeff Zucker, obviously. I was never as focused, didn't have the Harvard education and generally didn't care as much about the business of television as he did. True, I unfortunately didn't get to be a CEO and make ten million a year. But I also won't go down in history as the man who destroyed NBC.

All I'll do is be heartbroken that it happened.

(This post has been revised slightly, an update edited into it, in the interest of making it self-contained in the archive.)


Fifth Generation Leftist said...

Zucker seems to be the George W, Bush of broadcast television. How this man has a job after such a stupid gamble...

Capt Aclow said...

Thanks for the story Chez. The crucial long-term damage that hasn't been mentioned much is your:

"Why should anyone trust anything an NBC executive says from here on out?"

-Exactly. Why would star talent pick NBC over an alternative? It will limit their access to top-quality talent for years and years.

e said...

I wonder though, if outside a set group of people on the internet, however large it may be, if most of America cares about this story.

I do, but that's because Conan is my generation's late night guy. I'm just not sure beyond a "oh that's not cool", if enough people think its an issue.

Sheriff Bart said...

This is too bad. I hope Zucker doesn't lose his job. I loved Airplane!

Anonymous said...

all 3 major networks have been considerably devalued in the last 2 years. the only reason NBC is pulling the plug on this is because the affiliates are screaming about losing money. with the pending comcast sale, Zucker is safe, Comcast heads work slowly, methodically, they wouldnt fire him for at least 24 months after the sale is approved.

L. said...

As nothing more than a television viewer, I've noticed NBC shooting itself in the foot for awhile now. As you've said, they're clearly chasing profit and not working on building quality programming.

It's mostly obvious (and annoying) to me because they seem to jump to cancel anything that isn't an immediate and overwhelming hit. It's to the point where I get frustrated if a show I think I might like is due to be shown on NBC because I know if it doesn't find an immediate audience it'll probably not last past the first season.

I realize my knowledge of how a network actually functions is extremely limited, but I don't understand why the networks can't function like HBO and Showtime in terms of quality of programming. I'm a cheap bastard, but I shell out an extra $25 a month just to be able to watch 2 or 3 shows on those networks. There is most certainly a market for content that isn't simply lowest common denominator drivel. It's not like the ability to swear and show boobs is what makes those shows good. I just can't understand why the network shows never seem to be up to par in comparison.

Anonymous said...

I am so sick of all this "woe is me" over the sad, sorry plight of quadruple millionaires. WTF. You want me to cry for these pricks? You want me to care? There are real goddamned victims in this world who are suffering horribly as these fucks shop for a new multi-million dollar apartment. GOD!

Chez said...

Careful, Anon. Your issues are showing.

Brian H said...

Jay Leno is Brett Favre.

Chez said...

You know, if you believe the NYT's David Carr, Zucker is walking around behind the scenes saying that Conan let him down by producing a low-rated show. That's what Carr tweeted yesterday -- saying he got it from a reliable source. That's just sickening.

Jester said...

Geez. If you're Conan, how do you not feel sick about that? Dave kicked Jay's ass in the ratings for three YEARS before Jay got his feet under him. Conan got about a sixth of that time.

Good piece, though. A little bitter, but interesting. Feels like there's something going on underneath. Have you ever told the story of why you left MSNBC for CNN, if you were so happy at the former?

Alanna said...

What was Leno's Neilsen % for the first 7months after he took over the throne in '92? anyone know?

Chez said...

About a year after 9/11, MS for some strange reason went into a panic about how to continue pulling in viewers instead of staying the course and just delivering a decent news product. At the time, they were getting their asses kicked by both Fox and CNN and weren't even competing really. So they allowed a guy named Jerry Nachman to come in, take near-complete control, and turn the place literally into talk radio on TV. Maybe it was a good idea, who knows. But it made the work environment feel stifling and toxic. Part of the reason I took one very small shot at MSNBC in Dead Star Twilight was because of this. I said that for the staff behind the scenes, MS's motto was "MSNBC: If you've seen it on our air consistently for two weeks, that's 13 days too long." The implication being that, like the Zucker ethos, they were always looking for the quick-fix instead of giving things time to develop.

I'm not bitter at all about my experience at NBC. Not in the least. I'm bitter and genuinely sad to see what's been going on at the network. I really do love the place. You have no idea how honored I was to work there. Browne was right -- it's a feeling you can't quite describe. You really understand that you're a part of something massive.

Chez said...

You can't go strictly by numbers anymore, Alanna -- because since the early 90s the audience share has shrunk considerably what with media splintering and more product available from more outlets. However, Letterman was consistently beating Leno until the day Leno turned the tide with that Hugh Grant interview following his arrest.

Michael J. West said...

All hope is not lost, Chez:


Still just scuttlebutt, mind you...

As for Leno's early days, Alanna, the only thing you really need to know is this: When Tonight was hosted by Johnny Carson, attempts by other late-night hosts to compete head-to-head with him were regarded as national jokes before they even premiered. Even Arsenio Hall, who was sometimes seen as the only successful late night rival, actually started at 11:00 and ended at 11:45 - and saw a huge slide in those last fifteen minutes.

Then Leno came on and suddenly another network could not only hold their own against the Tonight Show, but beat it. How's that for a ratings collapse?

Anonymous said...

wow...I can't believe you mentioned the Hugh Grant arrest without saying the words "tranny hooker"

Michael J. West said...

P.S. This is my new Quote of the Month, from Colin Horgan at True/Slant:

"Leno’s current professional streak is much like that of the ex-Governor [i.e., Sarah Palin]. He managed to debase and scuttle the attempts of a more talented and interesting co-worker, and even after failing miserably at his job, here he is, back in the public eye as if nothing ever happened."

Riles said...

Another irony... Had NBC not let Seinfeld develop, and canceled it after a few months, they would have missed out on one of the biggest hits and moneymakers in TV history.

Heather said...

"Jay Leno is Brett Favre."

You have no idea how hard that just made me laugh, BrianH. So funny and so true!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

Usually I am the most critical of that which I care most about or monumental stupidity.

There are too many people who have no shame. They want theirs and everyone else be damned.

People who start believing their own bullshit, hype, etc. are also destined to fail.

drater said...

In defense of Conan's ratings, it's a well known fact that if you have a stinker--such as, oh, I don't know, the new Leno show--leading in to your program, your ratings are going to take a hit. I guess Zucker doesn't know much about TV, which would explain a lot, actually.

Jester said...

Poor Conan. Today, the NBC execs are letting it slip that there's no timeslot commitment in his contract. None. NBC can put him on at 3am, and as long as the show is *called* "The Tonight Show", they're fulfilling their end of the deal.

Whomever negotiated this for Conan needs to be taken out behind the woodshed and shot.

Jay's contract, by contract, specifically calls out 10pm as his timeslot, so his deal will have to be renegotiated.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how NBC is going to salvage this in the long term? Not that that is what's on their mind lately. If they go forward with this and go ahead and alienate the under 35 (or maybe 40?) demographic what are they going to do down the road when Leno does retire or quit for real? It isn't like Conan would ever go back and none of the other veterans would pick it up after this mess. If they keep going forward with this it's likely it will be the end of The Tonight Show. The only solution I can think of is to put Conan back and apologize.

Of course there is the other possibility that this entire thing is a giant scam to boost ratings since nothing draws attention like a good feud-meltdown. Conan's show isn't doing as well as they'd like it so they engineer this whole stunt complete with NBC jabs and mock anger. It's actually kind of brilliant the more I think about it. They haven't actually changed anything yet and they've drummed up a ton of interest and are still in a position to go "Our bad. Nothing is changing, Conan deserves to stay." The only people who would have to really be in on it would be Jay, Conan, Zucker and a few others.

Chez said...

The "The Introduction of New Coke was Planned From the Beginning" conspiracy theory. I wouldn't put it past Zucker to pull something like that since that's what he's known for -- but I don't think it's possible that Leno and Conan would be in on it.

Green Lantern said...


I gotta agree with "L". I enjoy paid programming a lot more than most network stuff not because of the cursing and nudity either (though heaven knows I like my goddamn boobies), but that they appear to take time to craft a good story instead of slapdash something they can wrap advertising around.

Truth is I haven't gone out of my way to watch late night talk since Carson left his show so I can't say I'm a fan of either Leno or Conan, but I think the REAL winner here will be Letterman. Serves him right for his rocky start at "The Electric Company". You go, Letterman!