Conan/Leno/Letterman — Ignore Twitter!

I’m going to take a semi-break from my focus on mobile + social marketing to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart:  Late Night Comedy.

I first watched Letterman the first year he was on TV — in my freshman dorm at Kenyon when my friend Bill Sondheim walked into the second floor lounge in Mather Hall, switched the channel on something we were watching and said something like: ” This is Letterman, he’s the best…”  Little did I know then how many hours of pleasure I would receive from watching Letterman  — and how much his sense of humor would inform my sensibilities.  So thanks, Bill.  And thanks Dave.  As for Conan and Leno, I rarely watch either, but they can be plenty funny — they just appeal to different demographics.

As for the Conan/Leno crisis at NBC, we’ve all seen big companies make mistakes, but rarely have we seen a mistake this big, this public, this dramatic.  The one failed deal/decision of this magnitude that I can recall is AOL/Time Warner.  I think they lost a lot more money and a lot more credibility than NBC in the Conan/Leno debacle, but Time Warner has recovered nicely and AOL is…

Here’s my favorite quote from Letterman on the story:  “I’m telling jokes and making fun of Jay Leno over and over and over, relentlessly, mercilessly simply for one reason.  I’m really enjoying it.”

You can hardly blame Letterman from tweaking Leno, Conan and NBC.  It’s totally his style to choose a funny topic and then just grind it into the ground.  It’s part of what his fans love about him.

There are significant marketing and business lessons to be learned from this story:

  1. If you are making a bold move to save a lot of money, make sure it is the right move.  A more thorough testing of NBC’s concept would have been very smart.  Try two days a week to start.  Do it for a few months.  Weigh the financial and business impact.
  2. Talking about strategic moves in the media before they are finalized is rarely smart.  Mets fans will recall the crazy day of May 12, 2003 when manager Art Howe handed catcher Mike Piazza a first baseman’s glove and asked him to take ground balls at first during public, pre-game warm-ups, after the Mets had avoided asking him to do it for months.  It was a dopey, ham-handed (typically Mets-ish) move that did not solve the Mets problems, only made them worse.  If you are going to make strategic shifts, you have to plan them.
  3. On the social media side, even if NBC had made their decisions in private and announced them all at once, there still would have been a huge outcry.  So I’m fine with their decision to largely ignore Twitter in this situation.
  4. Conan’s brand is actually much more important to his fans than the brand of any network he works for.  If NBC had tried to start a comedy network on CNBC at 11pm with Conan as the anchor, they could have possibly made even more money.  And the Twitter “I’m with CoCo” folk would have been on their side.

The Twitter outcry about Conan has been much discussed.  But I don’t blame NBC at all for ignoring it.  They have a financial problem (yes, of their own making) and they believe Leno at 11:30 is the answer.  Sticking to their guns to make that decision was the right thing to do, regardless of what the twittering masses are saying.

And now for your viewing pleasure, here’s Letterman himself on Leno’s “Don’t Blame Conan” comment.  A modern classic…

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