Conan vs. Leno: The Last Great TV Scheduling War

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.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

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.

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