More late night communications

Thanks to teaser trailers and shifting advertising philosophy, few Superbowl ads in recent years have been noticeably different from the types of ads played throughout the football season.  But this year, one was jaw-droppingly shocking:

It’s a win for Letterman, obviously, who promoted his show with a memorable and hilarious ad.   But even in appearing in a competitor’s ad, Leno helped his own cause considerably.

As discussed before, Conan O’Brien handled his Tonight Show departure with a solid communication strategy that set him up for future success.  In part because of that, and in part because of O’Brien’s enthusiastic fan base, NBC has been faced with very public rebukes of the new arrangement.  His predecessor/successor Jay Leno has necessarily shifted to damage control mode in the month leading up to his re-assumption of hosting duties.

If Leno wants to return to the top of the ratings, he has to convince viewers he’s the same old, nice, safe Jay Leno they used to have on in the background as they fell asleep – and not a calculating, back-stabbing schmuck.  Much like voters sizing up a candidate for office, the majority of late night viewers are looking for someone likeable who doesn’t resort to petty squabbling (at least, not obviously).

Leno’s first attempt to repair his image, an interview with Oprah, had mixed results. (Seriously, who quotes Bob Sugar while trying to win sympathy?) But in filming this ad, Leno is able to diffuse the situation and put the late night shakeup in perspective.

But this isn’t all image rehab; Leno gets some real, tangible benefits as well.  Superbowl viewers were going to see an ad for the Late Show one way or another – it will likely be the highest rated program CBS airs all year, and they were not shy about pimping their own shows.  Leno’s appearance puts him in front of a large viewing audience in a positive light.  In essence, even though the ad displayed the Late Show logo, it was also an advertisement for Leno’s Tonight Show.

The content of the ad catered to Leno’s interests as well.  As Leno’s 10:00 p.m. variety hour sabotaged NBC’s local news and late-night programming, Letterman has climbed to the top ratings spot after spending a decade playing second fiddle to the Tonight Show.  So when Leno explains Letterman’s grumpiness by saying it’s “because I’m here,” it means more than just Oprah Winfrey’s Superbowl party.

And by the way, Oprah’s Superbowl party was kind of lame… perhaps it would have been better with Betty White and Abe Vigoda?

Sunday Funnies: Words to Live By

My former employer, Morton Blackwell, was very active in the 1964 campaign of Barry Goldwater.  That campaign had a theme – “In your heart, you know he’s right” – that doesn’t really work in politics.  One of the key lessons Morton would teach neophyte political operatives was that being philosophically correct did not always translate into electoral success.  After Goldwater’s drubbing in 1964, those who had been in his corner broke into two camps, as Morton described it.  Some became cynical, and vowed to leave politics, the other side vowed to fight for their ideas rather than with them.

One of the elements that made this second camp successful – and allowed them to regroup and elect Ronald Reagan in 1980 – was a lack of cynicism and a positive attitude.

And that’s why this speech, even if it is only about a silly little TV show, is worth repeating:

There are always places – in the world and the media landscape – for new and innovative ideas.  Those places aren’t always easy to find, but are usually worth the search.

CoCo and the Online Campaign

New England hasn’t seen an upset like Scott Brown’s win since Superbowl 42 – and much of the credit deservedly goes to his campaign’s ability to harness support from Republicans across the country through online organizing and remote phone banks. Compare that to the other online campaign making news lately: the “I’m with CoCo” movement supporting deposed Tonight Show host Conan O’Brien.

While O’Brien cleverly positioned himself to the People of Earth, the online effort to build support has not been effective – even though it has translated to angry mobs descending on NBC affiliates calling on O’Brien to keep his current gig.  The shortcoming?  The online movement – which appears largely viewer-generated – isn’t focusing on activities which will affect NBC’s bottom line.

Scott Brown’s online efforts were all geared to mobilize voters and volunteers who could drive more voters to the polls.  Outside of fraud and cheating, winning more voters is the easiest way to win an election.

NBC counts votes in two ways: ratings and, more importantly, advertising dollars.  A more effective CoCo Movement might target Tonight Show advertisers, warning them of boycotts.  A well-publicized action against a current Jay Leno sponsor might be a good shot across the bow.

Johnny Carson’s old chair is not “The People’s Seat.”  Rallies and large Facebook groups may snag short-term media attention, but NBC feels like they can win more “votes” with Jay Leno behind the Tonight Show desk and until the CoCo movement translates into viewers and dollars, nothing will dissuade them.

Conan the communications expert

Conan O’Brien may not be the host of the Tonight Show much longer, but he could have a second career in media relations.   Aside from being funny and smart, his statement this week has set the terms of NBC’s internal debate: either he remains the host of the 11:30 Tonight Show franchise, or he leaves NBC.  It cites not only the 55-year-old history of the program and it’s Mount Rushmore of hosts, but he mentions the effect on the programs after him.  He makes the case that keeping his show at 11:30 is best not only for him, but fair to everyone on the NBC schedule, making him a sympathetic figure.

The statement frames the late night drama that’s unfolding as a choice for NBC between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien – which is a savvy move for O’Brien.  The landscape is different now than when NBC chose Leno over David Letterman to replace Johnny Carson out in 1991.  Letterman and Leno both had appeared to have decades of television ahead of them – which has proven true. But while O’Brien is in his late 40’s, Leno is 60.  The question for NBC isn’t just who hosts the Tonight Show in March 2010, but who hosts it in 2015?  (The Green Bay Packers can empathize – they had to go through the same decision with Brett Favre.)

O’Brien’s statement essentially painted this picture for NBC: Choosing Leno now means that in five years, the network could be looking for someone to man the Tonight Show desk in a crowded late-night field that includes Letterman and O’Brien.

Incidentally, it also spiked his ratings.

UPDATE: In what could be considered a self-serving blog post, a blogger for CBS News points out that O’Brien’s statement also sets the stage for a legal battle over breach of contract.