Who could have guessed he was being optimistic? Remarkably, given the calculatedly low expectations that NBC had publicized, The Jay Leno Show has, on several occasions, managed to fall short of even that painfully modest ratings target. And Zucker’s decision to cancel Southland, a promising cop series from ER czar John Wells that had yet to air a single episode of its second season, came off as such a brazen act of bird-flipping that Wells, a powerful and politic writer-producer who was recently elected to run the Writers Guild of America, West, issued a statement saying he was “disappointed that NBC no longer has the time periods available to support the kind of critically acclaimed series that was for so many years a hallmark of their success.” “Drop dead” would have been more concise.
Having just weathered the two-year run of Silverman—a tenure during which he accomplished little more than securing a guest shot on Entourage and serving as a chew toy for entertainment-industry blogzilla Nikki Finke—Zucker cannot be enjoying this attention at a moment when his and his company’s future are the subject of high-stakes speculation. Even his own lieutenant Jeff Gaspin, who had been overseeing NBC’s successful cable channels before he replaced Silverman this past summer, seems to know how badly this fall’s moves have been received; in October, he told the website The Wrap that NBC is “in it to win it.” That sounds awfully like a repudiation of his boss’s rationale for handing the company’s car keys to Leno, and is also a tough argument to make at a moment when your network is not only finishing fourth but losing some time slots to reruns and, even once, to a basic cable series (FX’s Sons of Anarchy).
Zucker’s upward trajectory at NBC since 1992, when he became the producer of the moneymaking flagship Today show at the tender age of 26, has been fueled by his ability to swat away criticism by convincing those above and below him that he knows exactly what he’s doing. And a case can be made that his bottom-line programming theory is, though unpopular, smart. Even Zucker’s competitors haven’t refuted his primary argument—that the low cost of producing Leno makes it more financially attractive than what would probably be a very mixed bag of dramas and news hours. Sure, NBC would rather have a 10 p.m. hit like CBS’s The Mentalist, but for every show like that, there’s another on the order of ABC’s Eastwick, which is attracting a meager Leno-size audience and is unlikely ever to recoup a dime.
Zucker suggests that ratings don’t matter. That’s not an argument you’ll ever hear from someone in first place.
Perhaps most important, to define Zucker only by his oversight of NBC is to miss the bigger picture. NBC Universal also counts among its TV properties Bravo, Telemundo, Syfy, and USA Network. And while NBC itself may be flailing, Bravo, with its gay-friendly mix of smart food-and-fashion reality shows and virtual-drag-queen housewives, has soared to new ratings highs this year. So has Syfy: One can legitimately ask why Zucker paid some genius more than twelve cents to rebrand the Sci Fi Channel with a stupid misspelling, but last summer, the channel launched a new drama series, Warehouse 13, that has become the biggest hit in its history. And USA’s booming lineup of escapist dramas—Burn Notice, Royal Pains, White Collar, Psych—is scoring such good ratings that it has become, in effect, NBC’s missing lineup of scripted prime-time shows. If, across any particular time slot, these channels, under Zucker’s supervision, are all feeding NBC Universal’s profits by aggregating a large and demographically diverse audience, maybe NBC itself only needs to be one spoke in the wheel. Money is money, no matter where it comes from.
On the other hand: If you don’t really believe in network television as a workable model anymore, why run a network? Broadcast TV, even in an age of infinite options, is still an institution with heft and force, but Zucker has often behaved like the grudging caretaker of a dying giant. His spin on falling numbers? The whole system is broken! NBC, his story goes, is always a victim of market shifts or an evolving media universe, never of plain old bad ideas and weak programming. This self-justification has led to some painful contortions: Last year, for instance, Zucker told the trade journal TVWeek that ratings don’t matter. “We are in an … environment where the difference between first and fourth or second or third is incredibly minimal,” he said. That’s not an argument you’ll ever hear from someone in first place—nor, by the numbers, has it proved true; on some nights, NBC’s competitors draw double its ratings or more.
And then came the Leno move, for which Zucker was so intent on the cost-per-hour benefit to NBC that he failed to anticipate the collateral damage. With its wee audience—around 5 million people per night—Leno has robbed the network of viewers that could be watching promos for its following evening’s lineup, which means that, except when it airs football or The Biggest Loser, NBC tends to start each evening’s prime-time schedule with an already diminished audience. Handing 10 p.m. to Leno has also hurt ratings—severely in some cities—for the late-night newscasts of NBC’s affiliates. That, in turn, has dinged the Tonight Show, which, in the shaky hands of Conan O’Brien, now loses to David Letterman (who, even mid-scandal, seems to be having the time of his life). And that weakens NBC’s Jimmy Fallon and helps CBS’s Craig Ferguson. Back in prime time, NBC’s highest-rated scripted series, the durable warhorse Law & Order: SVU, has suffered because of its eviction from its longtime 10 p.m. slot. And on October 26, a humiliating report in Advertising Age revealed that NBC has been able to charge an average of only $57,486 for a 30-second ad on Leno, in contrast to CBS’s $127,000 for a new hit like The Good Wife and ABC’s $240,000 for a demographic blockbuster like Grey’s Anatomy.