NBC's ‘Tonight’ fiasco offers timely reminder

January 14, 2010

LarryLujack

Larry Lujack was a victim of low-ratings
after his move from morning drive.

Timing is everything, as NBC again proved the hard way. The same Jay Leno who cleaned up in the ratings at 10:35 p.m. turned out to be a $200 million mistake for the Peacock Network at 9 p.m. But while it's adding up to be "one of the biggest debacles in television history," the latest miscalculation is unique only in its magnitude.

Broadcast history is replete with instances of immensely popular performers in one time period failing miserably in another. Katie Couric was America's sweetheart and the queen of morning television on the "Today" show. But she's a third-place also-ran on "The CBS Evening News." Pat Sajak, the amiable "Wheel of Fortune" host, fronts the highest-rated and most enduring game show in syndication annals. But he bombed on his short-lived late-night talk show.

Two of Chicago's all-time greatest radio personalities shared similar fates after their bosses agreed to move them out of their familiar time slots. In both cases, the results were disastrous.

Wally Phillips was the undisputed king of morning radio in Chicago for two decades when he decided to give up the dawn patrol on Tribune Co.-owned news/talk WGN-AM (720) and shift to afternoons in 1986. But after eight months of disappointing ratings, a frustrated and unhappy Phillips wanted out. He switched to hosting a noontime show from downtown restaurants for a couple of years, but he never came close to the spectacular ratings success he'd once enjoyed.

Another morning radio icon, "Superjock" Larry Lujack, scored what was the biggest Chicago radio payday ever -- a 12-year deal worth $6 million -- while he was riding high at WLS-AM (890), then a Top 40 powerhouse owned by ABC. But only a few years later, he invoked an option in his contract to quit the morning grind and switch to afternoons. Unfortunately, the 18-to-49-year-old faithful who adored Ol' Uncle Lar in the a.m. didn't follow him to the p.m. Within a year, his ratings plummeted to 18th‚ place, and his bosses bought out the remaining eight years of his agreement. He retired from WLS in 1987 -- at the ripe old age of 47.

As NBC plays out its late-night agony in public, the biggest losers continue to be the network's owned stations and affiliates, who've seen dramatic declines in ratings for their 10 p.m. newscasts since Leno moved to 9 p.m. But there's another casualty of NBC's "fundamental misunderstanding of network television," according to media critic, author and Chicago Public Radio contributor Wally Podrazik:

"NBC couldn't understand the definition of what a network can credibly [air] in primetime, or the relationships between itself and the creative community."

Once the inevitable happens and Conan O'Brien is able to leave "The Tonight Show" with dignity (and no doubt with an enormous settlement), Chicago Tribune TV critic Maureen Ryan offers the best advice of all:

"[NBC] executives could begin working on a much bigger and more important task: Rebuilding the network's credibility in the eyes of the viewing public, not with reinventions and radical innovations, but with well-crafted, entertaining television. That approach wouldn't end NBC's troubles, but it would be a start. And it would be preferable to everything else the network has tried in the last decade."

Elsewhere on the media beat:

  • Could John Williams be heading back to his old station in Minneapolis? The WGN midday host filled in for two days this week on WCCO-AM, the CBS-owned news/talk station where he'd spent four years before landing here in 1997. A WCCO exec told MinnPost.com blogger David Brauer the stint "did not constitute a tryout," adding that Williams "was just helping his 'CCO pals fill a hole in the schedule." Nevertheless, it's no secret that there is an opening for an afternoon host on the station.
  • Fans of "WGN Morning News" can relax. WGN-Channel 9 morning news anchor Larry Potash, whose previous contract ran out last week, will be sticking with the Tribune Co.-owned station. With Potash heading an ensemble cast, the morning show format is one of the few real success stories in Chicago television news over the past 15 years.
  • As you might have guessed, WMAQ-Channel 5's new "Weekend Connection" show -- debuting at 8:30 a.m. Sunday -- turns out to be just another way for the NBC-owned station to recycle content from other sources and pass it off as news. (What do you expect from the same folks who bring you "The Talk" a half-hour earlier?) One critic calls it "yet another creeping manifestation of [NBC's] managing-for-margins strategy, sacrificing quality local news programming in favor of the reliable profits that come from lower costs."

 

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