Is Jay Leno 25% or 30% - or even 10% - less funny now than he was prior to this week’s ballyhooed cutbacks at NBC’s Tonight Show?
On Monday, Jay joked that NBC’s parent Comcast Corp. considers his staff “The Expendables.” That’s at least 70% witty, but not hysterical. Analysts simply attributed the cost-cutting to Comcast’s insistence on “improving the financial performance” of the broadcast network.
The reductions, including elimination of about two dozen jobs plus Leno’s allegedly self-imposed (and eminently promotable) salary cut to avoid further staff layoffs, brought to mind two thrifty tales I heard from Comcast insiders nearly a decade ago.
One, describing a negotiation session for channel carriage on Comcast systems, concluded that after Comcast CEO Brian Roberts completed the deal, “there wasn’t a crumb left on the table.” The inference was that the programmer was so eager to get a Comcast affiliation; any deal would be satisfactory - and the MSO knew it.
The second reference was simply a description of Roberts as “a bloodless accountant.” Again, I heard it as the model of an analytical decision-maker looking after the best fiduciary interests of shareholders.
So now the notoriously lavish Hollywood creative sector faces the slashing sword from Philadelphia. Will the reported 10% payroll purge at the Tonight Show diminish the quality of the program by 10%? And if that happens, how will we know? Even for NBC’s tent-pole revenue-generator Tonight, the reduced costs are unlikely to affect what we see. So far, Leno, who says he doesn’t need the measly $20 million he’ll now receive (compared to $27 million-$30 million before the “voluntary” giveback), is as entertaining as ever.
More significant to the TV industry as a whole - and especially to the growing stable of Comcast-owned content channels - are the implications of this cost-cutting.
Beyond the lavish pay scales for celebrities (both in front of and behind the camera) is a new TV economic landscape. Improved, and admittedly costly, technology is bringing down the price of production and making possible new kinds of appealing entertainment. (Let’s not even talk about el-cheapo reality programs.)
Eager and hungry talent has always been waiting in the wings to deliver their dreams and their schticks to national TV. Now, thanks to the star-making power of viral online video, some of those newcomers can actually bring with them a large existing audience.
These conditions and more are paving the way for what I’ll call “good enough TV.” Certainly, second-tier cable channels have survived for years on “adequate” quality shows: well-produced made-for-video movies and series that would have qualified as “B” films a half-century ago. They’re good enough for primetime, a launch-pad for young talent and a sinecure for past-their-prime performers.
Now “good enough TV” can be seen on cable channels, online video as well as broadcast TV. As a number of entertainment industry analysts have been pointing out lately, TV is surpassing feature film as a preferred vehicle for story-telling and distribution - and the growth of broadband video is part of this “good enough TV” equation.
Google’s recent $200 million second round of investment to support original programming for its YouTube subsidiary is one of many ways in which “good enough” - and sometimes outstanding - new content is coming to digital screens. Some of the shows are being created specifically for the handheld device market, which requires very inventive techniques aimed at the very small screen. Other “good enough” shows take advantage of the interactive capabilities that young producers can now create on a financial shoestring.
I agree with analysts who contend that big-budget, blockbuster programming (theatrical and at-home shows) will remain a significant component of the entertainment mix. But with wishful thinking, studio executives dream that Comcast’s slashing sword may do what previous Disney and Fox threats did not achieve: become the leading edge in ending the era of the $20 million-per-movie star system.
Most immediately, the message is that “good enough TV” - including the creative entertainment coming to us via the Web - may offer a satisfying future for viewers. Let’s see what Leno has to say about that.
Or will he be paying too much attention and try to be funnier to beat the lower-priced Jimmy Kimmel competition facing him head-to-head on ABC starting in January?
Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC in Bethesda, Md., and a long-time interactive TV enthusiast. Reach him at GArlen@ArlenCom.com