Conan, Leno, and a Business Moral

Nice article in the Washington Post by business columnist Steven Pearlstein, asserting that NBC’s late night troubles are an analog for what’s wrong with American Business.

Among his observations:

It starts with the mind-set that puts short-term profit over long-term value creation….

Unable to come up with something new and fresh, NBC’s fallback — like so much of American business — was simply to do more of what worked, until it didn’t. …

For NBC, the decision to move Leno to an earlier time slot had nothing to do with the desires of TV viewers. Rather, it seemed like a clever solution to the problem of having promised the “Tonight Show” to O’Brien five years earlier in an effort to prevent him from jumping to a rival network. It’s a common mistake in business — letting key decisions be driven not by market demand but by the need to resolve internal conflicts. As NBC discovered, it rarely works out for the best…..

Truly great companies see themselves as part of a business ecosystem. They understand that their long-term success depends on having financially healthy suppliers and distributors, and take pains not to share gains and avoid profiting excessively at their expense. [There’s that Golden Rule thing again! – jbm]

But NBC forgot that wisdom when it decided to go for a strategy of low-budget offerings in prime time that would maintain profitability at the expense of program quality or ratings. It turned out that the new strategy posed an existential threat to the independent studios and production houses that networks still rely on to create their entertainment programming. And the smaller audiences that NBC was willing to accept for Leno’s 10 p.m. show translated into shrunken audiences for 11 p.m. news shows that generate as much as 40 percent of the revenue for local affiliates that are already reeling from the recession and competition from Internet advertising.

There are many other lessons to be drawn from NBC’s late-night debacle — on the shortcoming of industrial conglomerates (GE), on the difficulty of old dogs learning new tricks (Leno), and surely the one about sacrificing old products to launch new ones (O’Brien). You could probably construct an entire business school class around this case study in mismanagement.