Conan vs. Leno: The Last Great TV Scheduling War

Conan vs. Leno: The Last Great TV Scheduling War

Summary: The TV Network scheduling conflicts, ratings wars and analysis methods of the last five decades will be made obsolete by DVR ubiquity and On-Demand viewing technology.

TOPICS: Hardware, Mobility

The TV Network scheduling conflicts, ratings wars and analysis methods of the last five decades will be made obsolete by DVR ubiquity and On-Demand viewing technology.

With one of the worst natural disasters in modern history claiming untold amounts of human lives unfolding in front of us all over the media, it seems trivial if not completely callous to talk about the petty time slot scheduling differences between late-night television hosts as determined by network programming executives. But I promise, by the end of this blog entry, you'll understand why I chose this subject today.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

For those of you living under a rock this week or more concerned with people dying in the thousands due to a horrible earthquake, you might have missed the recent brouhaha caused by NBC television's desire to move Jay Leno's show, which is currently experiencing lousy ratings due to a perceived loss of his old core audience, back into his old Tonight Show time slot at 11:35PM, cut his show to a half hour long and shuffle the actual Tonight Show time slot a half hour ahead to 12:05. Got that? Ok.

Conan O'Brien, the host of the Tonight Show has effectively told NBC to go shove it -- either he stays in the time slot that his show has occupied for the last 60 years, or he walks, presumably to somewhere else where he is appreciated.

Is it just me, or does all of this time slotting pissing contest nonsense sound a lot like arguing about the merits of competing 56K analog modem protocols for dial-up Internet access when everyone is now using Wi-Fi, 3G, or broadband?

Let's face it, the entire concept of "Timeslots" for TV programs is dated and prime for extinction, if not for the fact that more and more people who lead busy lives and can't be tied to their TVs on the networks' schedules are using DVRs to time-shift their programming. In fact, even though I have satellite television and over 200 channels of programming, my wife and I watch almost none of it live. Heck, I didn't even realize I was in a TV promotional spot for a well-known cable TV program this week until someone told me they saw me in one. My DVR allows me to skip over all the commercials, so I had no idea I was in one.

Sure, when there is an important news event in progress, like the current situation in Haiti, I'm going to tune in live. When the World Series or the Superbowl is on, I'm probably also going to tune in live, although I might consider recording them anyway so that I can be 30 or 40 minutes buffered in order to skip commercials and do replays. And when they do the olympics in some far-off land with a time zone that is completely flip-flopped or after my bedtime? DVR, baby.

In of October of 2008, it was estimated that 27 percent of all American households had at least one DVR, and 30 percent of those DVR households had more than one DVR. In the 14 months since, that number is going to be considerably higher given the fact that every single Cable and Satellite TV provider, as well as the telcos providing Fiber Optic Internet service have rolled out subsidized DVR services as part of the premises equipment. Magna Insights, an advertising research firm, projects that by 2014, a whopping 44 percent of all TV households will have DVR capability.

By 2014, I think the DVR number is going to be a lot closer to 100 percent of all Cable, Satellite and Broadband service subscribers. It should also be worth mentioning that by 2014 or 2016, every broadband customer will have some sort of On-Demand functionality integrated into their basic on-premises equipment. Who the On-demand content provider leader by 2016 will be will be be hard to say -- it could be someone like Netflix, Amazon or Roku, or a new industry player entirely.

Regardless of who the content provider leaders are -- who are I think may very well end up being the usual suspects we recognize today, I suspect that each and every network produced, non-live TV show will be available via instant download. For free, with embedded advertising segments that you'll be required to watch, just as if you were watching it on Hulu now. If you want it without advertising or the ability to fast forward, you'll have to pay for it, just like your Cable TV and Satellite content from HBO and Showtime.

Wanna watch the latest Late Night with David Letterman or Big Bang Theory? You wont have to worry about catching it in "Prime Time" or setting your DVR, which in 2016 will both be anachronisms. You'll see the latest episodes appear on your "Subscribed Programming list" on your set-top box of choice and be able to watch it the minute it is released and streamed instantly to your TV, just as you can do with Roku and Netflix today.

Considering that Conan and Leno "tape" their shows in the middle of the afternoon, their fully-digital 1080i and 720p content could be available as soon as the final produced cut is dumped to a Storage Area Network from the studio, encoded in a loss-less compressed HDTV video format, and replicated via high-speed optical carrier to a CDN like LimeLight Networks, Akamai, Netflix or UStream, who would then provide the feed directly to Comcast, DirecTV, Verizon, or whoever needs to populate their content on their set-top box for On-Demand Streaming.

Certainly, there will still be a significant portion of the population that will watch "Live" programming in the "Timeslots", just as there are people today who are stuck with Over the Air (OTA) TV reception, don't have HDTVs and use converters, refuse to pay for basic cable TV or satellite or are unable to access some sort of broadband due to local infrastructure issues. But they'll be an ever dwindling segment of the population, until which point just about everyone that could possibly impact the balance of the outcome of the rating equations networks use to make programming decisions outnumbers them.

Ratings will no longer be about timeslots, but about the number of downloads and targeted audiences, and the metrics that content providers will be able to gather and data mine will be tremendous. Suddenly, NBC will realize that 70 percent of what gets shown on Saturday Night Live sucks ass, and they'll be able to do sophisticated trends analysis to tell them to ditch the consistently stupid skits and the people that produce them or star in them, because they'll know exactly when people tune in and tune out to very granular levels of detail. Produced television content will have to survive based on raw viewership and downloads, not by what time slot they occupy. The success of television programming in 2016 will be measured not unlike the way we measure the success of New Media today. Old Media Television will have to adapt to an instantaneous gratification model, or die.

And then finally, "Timeslots" and "Live" will be reserved for the things that are REALLY important, like for showing us unfolding events of the world and things that really matter. Not the trivial battles between the late night yukkity-yuks, who we can watch at 3 in the afternoon or late Sunday morning or at any other time we choose.

Will DVRs and On-Demand re-define ratings and how television content is viewed and perceived? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Hardware, Mobility


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Jay should retired

    Jay claims he just bank every thing he made from The Tonight Show and never withdrew any. So he doesn't need the money so just retired.

    Not Conan fault Jay bombed at 10pm.
    • Agreed

      I really don't like Leno. I've watched his new show a few times, watched his old show a few times, didn't find either one all that entertaining. Conan on the other hand, he is hilarious. I hope he works something out and stays on the show. But even if he leaves he won't have a problem finding another show or going back to writing.
      Loverock Davidson
      • Leno could never save a bad joke

        and there were plenty. Letterman was funnier but he was mean so he didn't get the best guests, CBS sucks, and now there's the whole sex scandal thing.

        Oh well. Leno always bored me.
  • RE: Conan vs. Leno: The Last Great TV Scheduling War

    Hmm - tough to say since most shows are supported by high dollar advertising. If time shifting and skipping commercials kills the $ then the content will suffer. The whole problem with Jay is it messed up the affiliates news hour, Conan does not serve the same demographic as Leno, and there is more to the Tonight show than just a host. It was a pretty good formula - they should have left it alone.

    I suspect TV in its current form will continue as it has for over 50 years, but with modifications to force advertising on the DVRs such that say, you can't ffwd through commericals just the same as you have to absorb them on Hulu. Or, ads in the margins of DVR menus.

    Most importantly I cant figure out why if everyone is ffwd through commercials, then why don't advertisers put great big giant, stable static, logo graphics on their commercials that can be seen clearly even during FFWD's. Quite frankly the time I watch TV most intensely is when I have my finger on FFWD - what a great time to abosorb some ads!

    Further, the wonderful thing about TV is you don't have to micro-manage it if you don't want to - just flip it on put your feet up and watch - tune in and then tune out. With Leno, one could catch the days news at 11, get some comedy at 11:30 and end the day relaxed. I don't want to have to hunt and peck for each bit of content, each SNL skit, each Leno skit or joke, only the funny episodes of Office, and so on - too much work when you put it all together. A little channel flipping is fine, but I don't want to watch TV in the way that Youtube works.

    So, I think your wrong. TV will look mighty similar in a few years, though advertsing will change and Letterman might be on the Discovery/Harpo network by then.
  • RE: Conan vs. Leno: The Last Great TV Scheduling War

    First of all, not to be bitchy, but the Jay Leno show is an hour, not 1/2 hour. EDIT: Jason fixed the story, makes sense now. Thanks.

    As far as that subject goes, I think Conan has a great lawsuit on his hands if they force him to accept the move or leave. This deal was struck many years ago, and to try to renege on it now just to appease Leno is bull. Like the first comment said, time for Leno to retire and enjoy some of the money he has been stashing away for years.

    As far as the TV model changing, there will be no choice if the big 4 networks are to survive. All of the revenue comes from advertising, and when people are skipping the ads with the DVR playback, something will have to be done.

    I don't think it will get as advanced as you think it will by 2016, but I think it will be well on the way there, or at least similar to your vision. One way or another, we will either be forced to pay for TV or be forced to watch the advertising. Make no mistake about that. TV isn't produced for our viewing pleasure, it is produced to make a profit.
    • Nope.

      Half hour.
      • The NEW show would be, currently 10-11 pm

        Now go to bed, it's late, and I need you to be fresh to write again tomorrow. :-)
  • RE: Conan vs. Leno: The Last Great TV Scheduling War

    I think Jay Leno should be put back into his
    old time slot. I miss him. My husband and son do too.
    I don't care for Conan. I don't care where he goes.
    Many people do seem to like Conan,,, they each
    have their own fans. I don't understand why they
    changed it at all if Leno still wanted to have his
    show? Why did they make him leave in the first
    place? It seems they just shoved him out and brought
    in Conan.
    • They had to because ...

      ... six years ago, NBC (and presuambly Leno) signed a contract to turn over The Tonight Show to Conan in 2009.

      When Leno changed his mind, NBC decided to try this stunt rather than break Conan's contract in order to keep Leno on The Tonight Show. They gambled and they lost.

      The "fair" thing to do is to honor Conan's contract. From a ratings standpoint, they might be better off if they put Leno back on the Tonight Show at 11:30.

      Still, I view Leno as "damaged goods" for reneging on his original 'promise' to Conan and will be less likely to watch him now than I would have been. (I prefer Letterman anyway and feel like NBC screwed Letterman when they gave the job to Leno - way back when.)

      Realistically, NBC risks screwing up the The Tonight Show franchise entirely if they move The Tonight Show to midnight to accommodate Leno. Conan didn't want to see that happen so he called them on it - closing the door on that option. It was a gutsy thing for Conan to do because he risks losing everything by not cooperating.

      In the end, NBC looks bad and Jay Leno looks bad. Conan O'Brien comes out 'looking good' but he might be unemployed soon. (But probably very rich.)
      M Wagner
      • Hmmm

        They should put Leno at 12:35 and screw Jimmy Fallon over, push him back a half hour and Carson Daly back, then Poker After Dark can air at 7am. j/k
  • RE: Conan vs. Leno: The Last Great TV Scheduling War

    Jay did not bomb. NBC decided to change it all around and made him leave for Conan. Then they decided to bring him back at 10. Conan couldn't carry the time slot they put him in. They should have left it the way it was. I think Jay is great at his old time slot. Much better than Conan.
  • No you are missing the No Cable argument...

    I have become the latest candidate to cut off cable. I am tired to paying oodles of money for temporary content. Instead we have the basic over the air essentials, and the remainder is Internet based.

    For the past decade I have gotten my news from the Internet.

    I now get my prime viewing stuff from the Internet

    And finally for movies or series I just buy the DVD. I can watch the movie or series multiple times. No commercials and at my time in my location.

    So to see a war regarding Leno and Conan, yeah I can see the point. Because that would be a show I would watch live....
  • Late night TV dead

    The main reason Leno failed in prime time is that late night is dead. You cannot put a late night personality on prime time and expect big ratings.
    These guys at best have a unique audience and they all have their following. Its just not enough for prime time. Conan needs to get a ego check. With ratings falling after Leno parted. He needs to realize that nobody would want to put him in a late night slot against Letterman and Leno. He would be killed. He should be happy to follow leno and I think NBC should even consider a joint hosting possibility. After all late night is dying and this may actually help ratings to combine the two.
    • Good idea

      make it 1 1/2 hours long and run it like the today show with hosts at different points
    • The problem isn't Conan OR Jay; it's NBC executives

      NBC has a fiasco of falling ratings and rioting affiliates for one simple reason:

      The whole notion of [b]three straight hours[/b] of comedians hosting shows with the EXACT same format is like committing hari-kiri: death comes to NBC very quickly, but it [i]still[/i] hurts really bad.

      At 11:30, there's always been about 15 minutes of the host's jokes, always including banter with the house band leader; followed by a lot of selling: Actors selling new movies, Writers selling new books, guest musicians selling new records, and guest comedians selling themselves. Plus more actors selling TV shows....

      An hour later, the EXACT same format. And 90 minutes before, the EXACT same format again ??? That's whacked! I know that it costs nothing to produce the Jay Leno show, and "the network" can turn a profit without any effort at all. But the locals can't survive with their own evening news programs destroyed by the unwatched, uninteresting lead-in program.

      There's no point in labeling one of the 3 hosts as "much better" or "much worse" than the other two.... it's the simple fact that NBC's former customers would rather be water-boarded than "invited" to watch all 3 shows, one right after the next, with only a short local news program to relieve the monotony.

      BTW, I think that Conan has done some really funny stuff: Better than anything I've seen Jay do on TV, although Jay is [i]way[/i] more entertaining at Casino shows than he is on TV.
      Rick S._z
  • Bless the DVR

    It means that I can watch both Supernatural and Fringe and thanks to my obsolete ATI 650 I don't even have to use a cable system if I don't want.
  • DVR has already changed how my wife and I watch.

    My wife and I watch Jeopardy! most nights. We usually watch it during the time when Wheel of Fortune is on. That way we don't have to pay attention to the commercials, Alex blah-blahing with the contestants, etc.

    If we actually had to watch shows when they were on, we wouldn't watch them at all. That's just how my we watch TV now.
  • RE: Conan vs. Leno: The Last Great TV Scheduling War

    I don't really watch either one. All of my television is streamed through Hulu. Since television is pretty much ad based, I don't see that changing in the next century let alone decade. You might see embedded ads or product placing in shows or you might have entire television shows dedicated to products. In the 70s and 80s a lot of those cartoons were just half hour ads for toy products.

    Me, I sit through the commercials on Hulu, right now they are only about 30 seconds and there are only about 2-8 commercials per show so for me it is not that intrusive. I probably would not pay a premium to get commercial free content unless it was a movie or a one shot long duration show. But normal television viewing would not be worth paying for but I don't mind reasonable advertising to support the content. If I were going to digitally "rent" a movie for example, I would pay some money (not physical media kind of money though) to watch it uninterrupted.

    I would like to see a balance between the number and duration of advertising and the actual number of people streaming the content.
    Popular shows should have a limited amount of advertising but it should cost more to put an ad in the space. less popular shows would have more advertising and be cheaper to buy ad slots. Under this model you preserve most of the end user experience and society can still support shows that may not be "premium" quality. If you want to watch a show you like but might not be as popular, you can, you just have to deal with more ads. If you watching the Super Bowl, however, you won't have as many ads but the companies who bought the slots paid a premium for your eyeballs.
  • Not the issue

    DVR's are irrelevant. Leno announced FIVE YEARS AGO that he would be retiring. His real reason is to avoid the problem Johnny Carson faced.

    Carson is universally regarded as "the all-time undisputed king of late night. No one ever did it better and no one will ever again achieve what he did."

    Carson was "on his game" until he retired. But despite that, when he got into his mid-60's he just didn't appeal to a younger audience. Most of his guests were at least in their early 50's. When he would have a 20-something music group or the newest fad actor on, it was like "grandpa trying to be hip." It just didn't work. Someone Conan's age can still flirt with pretty young actresses, for instance. For someone Leno's age it just comes off as creepy.

    Carson realized that he simply could not appeal due to the age gap and there was nothing he could do to change that. It's the same reason why Hollywood studios will do remakes of a movie with currently popular younger actors instead of reissuing a classic.
  • RE: Conan vs. Leno: The Last Great TV Scheduling War

    There is a simple solution put them both on at 11:30. One on NBC, one on MSNBC. Let the broadcasters put one on subchannel a and the other on subchannel b. Let the viewer pick which one they want, or if they want both, fire up the DVR.