Late Night Madness, 3D TV and Fist Pumping on Broadcast Television

AP Photo/Matt Sayles

With all the buzz of 3D TV emerging out of last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, including ESPN and The Discovery Channel announcing plans to introduce two channels with 3D content, a veteran network was making plenty of headlines of its own.  By canceling Jay Leno’s 10 p.m. prime time talk show, a failed experiment that generated low ratings, NBC has found itself in a bit of a late night quagmire.

According to a CNN report, “The Jay Leno Show” ultimately had the plug pulled due to issues with affiliates, who had complained of terrible lead-in numbers for local news broadcasts. Now, NBC must figure out a way to incorporate its current set of late-night hosts (Conan O’ Brien, Jimmy Fallon, and the returning Leno) into the limited block of time that makes up its late night programming schedule.  Rumors have circulated that Leno will move to 11:35 p.m., O’Brien to 12:05 a.m., and Fallon to 1:05 a.m., but nothing has been finalized and the parties involved do not seem pleased.

As of now, it is hard to assess whether NBC’s attempt to capture the 10 p.m. audience through Leno was foolish. Before the move, both Leno and O’Brien had been staples of late night culture.   Had the transition been successful, NBC’s bold move to establish Leno at 10 p.m., a timeslot dominated by scripted content, could have made great impact on the programming decisions of all networks.

However, the Nielsen numbers clearly indicate that many viewers chose not to welcome Jay into their homes this hour.  Bloomberg reports that “in the week of Dec. 21-27, “The Jay Leno Show” averaged 4.73 million viewers, compared with 10.3 million for a repeat of CBS Corp.’s “CSI: NY,” the most-watched 10 p.m. program.” Conan’s ratings have suffered as well in his new role on “The Tonight Show.” Significantly behind CBS’ Letterman, O’Brien could potentially leave NBC entirely and head over to rival network FOX. With Conan O’Brien yet to make a decision on his status with the network, NBC is facing a potential PR disaster.

One can assume NBC conducted plenty of research and tested “The Jay Leno Show” prior to launching in September.  Perhaps the failure of the show represents a broader phenomenon in televised content.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to correctly identify the viewing habits of one’s audience.  Clearly, the existing Leno audience was not willing to tune in earlier, and most likely opted to watch scripted content with ongoing storylines at that hour.  Similarly, with an overwhelming amount of content available on television, even the trusted Leno brand no longer guarantees ratings.

In an age of near-limitless entertainment choices, the struggle for viewers’ attention plagues television network executives. 3D television is perhaps one way to bring in new viewers, yet the obvious lack of content, low initial market share (one needs to buy an entirely new HD television) and technological impediments (think 3D glasses) will keep this new technology at bay for quite some time.  In order to stand out in today’s current television landscape, a show must demonstrate an ability to register with its core audience.  One show that has demonstrated the ability to do so is MTV’s “Jersey Shore.”

Say what you will about the quality of character represented on the cable show, but 3.2 million viewers have found something intriguing about “The Jersey Shore.”  The show’s popularity can be largely attributed to “viral” promotion (please avoid the pun) and its ability to clearly connect with its targeted demographic – viewers between the ages of 12 and 34.  This demographic, responsible for a large portion of the nation’s text messaging, instant messaging, and most recently, tweeting, has alerted households nationwide through the aforementioned mediums of “The Situation” at hand.  With the rise of new communication methods such as Twitter, promotion (potentially unintended and uncontrolled by the network itself) can strengthen a show’s audience base. One may even argue that online gimmicks such as “’Jersey Shore’ Nickname Generators” hold greater strength than traditional network advertising.

As NBC struggles to clean up its late night madness, and the world readies itself for the so-called 3D television revolution, it is apparent that networks must adapt to the behavior and activities of its target audiences.  While fist pumping (a staple of “Jersey Shore) is sure to be a hit in 3D with the 12-34 demographic, network executives must figure out a way to connect to audiences of all ages by incorporating and taking advantage of new forms of communication for promotion.  That, or Jay Leno needs to take up residence in a beach house in Seaside Heights, New Jersey.

UPDATE:  Conan O’ Brien just has released a new statement regarding his plans.