A Branding Lesson From Leno

by Steve McKee

A Branding Lesson from Jay LenoThe big news this week in Medialand is NBC’s decision to cancel The Jay Leno Show and move the eponymous comedian back to a late-night time slot. About the short-lived experiment, Jeff Gaspin, NBC Universal’s Chairman of Television Entertainment, said, “I don’t think it’s wrong to take chances… Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t.”

Fair enough. But with a little more imagination, NBC might have been able to predict the outcome. The much-hyped decision to launch The Jay Leno Show was made in part based on economics – it’s a whole lot cheaper to produce an hour of live TV than an episode of Law & Order. While the show was profitable for NBC, it’s not terribly surprising that it would lag its competition in the ratings – especially in its first season, when loyal viewers of competitive offerings were caught up in current storylines.

The Jay Leno Show’s low ratings created a “lead-in” problem for NBC affiliates, who rely on audience carryover to provide viewers for their late local news. Michael Fiorile, chairman of NBC’s affiliate board, said NBC’s Leno strategy “has been devastating for a number of late newscasts around the country.”

While that’s unfortunate, it also underscores an unhealthy dependency that too often blinds local news providers to their task. And it provides a valuable business lesson for us all.

Most people tend to think of the television industry as something “other” than the product and service sectors that comprise the rest of the economy. But in reality it’s no different. Television news is a “product” that consumers “buy” (we pay for free TV with our time), and competitors are called to offer their prospective customers an experience that is unique, relevant, and valuable, just like any other business.

When a local affiliate complains about the network not offering a good enough lead-in for its local news, it’s like McDonald’s complaining that the Burger King across the street has better access to traffic. While that may be true, it can also serve as an all-too convenient cop-out. McDonald’s job is not to complain about the way the street is designed, but to get people to cross it – by offering something intriguing and unique (a task the company has performed quite well in recent years).

That’s where TV news falls down. Local news directors too often live in a “be better” bubble. That causes them to overstate the impact of their slogans, overvalue being first on the scene of an accident, and overpromote their handsome/pretty/ smart/honest/capable/talented/sincere news anchors. If they instead applied their intelligence and intensity (the news directors I’ve met have both in abundance) to seeking new ways to truly differentiate their offerings from the competition, we could see some real innovation in how local news is delivered. I suspect most viewers – and most people in the industry – would agree that there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Jay Leno is proven product whose success is in part dependent on how well he’s packaged and distributed. Local news is no different, and as Gaspin said, it’s not wrong to take chances. If only more news directors would.


Steve McKeeSteve McKee is a BusinessWeek.com columnist, marketing consultant, and author of “When Growth Stalls: How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck, and What To Do About It.” Learn more about him at www.WhenGrowthStalls.com and at https://twitter.com/whengrowthstall.

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