News reports today indicate that NBC will be moving Jay Leno back to a late night television time slot. The low ratings of his new prime-time show had upset NBC affiliates throughout the country, who were seeing an adverse impact on their late night local news. At the same time, Leno's replacement, Conan O'Brien, had fallen far short of the ratings achieved by his predecessor on the late night Tonight show. What can we learn from this failed experiment?
It seems that NBC failed to fully grasp the fundamental differences in the audiences at these different time slots and for these different hosts. First, the habits of the loyal Tonight Show audience during the Leno tenure did not appear to fit with a new prime-time slot. In other words, the Tonight Show appeared to be a ritual for many people, something they watched after the late night news. They liked that sequence, and they enjoyed ending their day with the Leno monologue. That didn't mean, however, that they would watch Leno during prime-time, when he was competing with very different alternatives. At the same time, the loyal viewers who watched Leno did not necessarily connect well with a much younger, quirkier Conan O'Brien, who had a very different style. Thus, O'Brien watched Tonight Show ratings fall as he took over. Again, his ratings success at a different time slot (after the Tonight Show) did not translate well to the earlier period, as the viewership demographic differs.
Did NBC understand all these demographic differences? We would think so, yet they seemed to convince themselves that these highly accomplished comics could overcome these issues. They learned that viewing habits and patterns have a more powerful, enduring influence than they imagined. Talent doesn't necessarily trump customer habits, needs, and rituals! The lesson is that companies really need to understand the rituals and habits of their customers, and they must comprehend why these habits may be difficult to break. They also have to understand at a deep level why people enjoy a particular product, and how their happiness may derive from precisely how they consume the product.
One positive from the Leno experiment: At least NBC cut their losses quickly. One big potential negative: One of their talented comics (or more) may depart over the whole way that this has been handled.