Friday, January 8, 2010

NBC learns the tough lessons of overhype

Talk about your awkward timing.

As hundreds of TV critics descend upon Pasadena, CA for the annual Television Critics Association press tour, and the rest of the media journalism hordes are planted at Las Vegas' Consumer Electronics Show, word leaks out that NBC-TV is bowing to affiliate pressure and restoring Jay Leno to his old 11:35 pm time slot and bumping Conan O'Brien to midnight.

The NBC PR department is working overtime issuing flowery statements pleasing both hosts, which are all basically holding patterns:

"Jay Leno is one of the most compelling entertainers in the world today. As we have said all along, Jay's show has performed exactly as we anticipated on the network."

"We have the best comedy team in the business. We remain committed to keeping Conan O'Brien on NBC. He is a valued part of our late-night lineup, as he has been for more than 16 years, and is one of the most respected entertainers on television."

Consider the dilemma, NBC's PR department is really doing the best they can until somebody makes an official statement, tail between their legs. What could the PR department say except nice things soothing Leno and O'Brien until something is hammered out? As long as they don't lie, they're pretty much stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Is this a PR disaster, as somebody e-mailed me yesterday? I think it's an unfortunate result of the compulsion to overhype anything new without any regard giving it a chance to breathe and find its feet.

The road to Leno's new 10 pm show which premiered in September was paved by tie-in's with other NBC shows, tons of interviews, press conferences, and stunts. It actually got the point where Leno himself was mocking all the monstrous hype: according to an MSNBC article from last September, when Leno was asked at an NBC-hosted critics party if was nervous about having to save the network, he shot back: "The network is on its own. Screw them."

I know the basic DNA of executives and public relations professionals is to get as much press for anything as possible -- shoot for the moon. Man all decks, get the cover stories. In many cases, that's good to be ambitious.

However, the more you blow your own horn, the bigger the target that will be painted on your back. When it comes to something experimental in nature, such as Leno's move to 10 pm, it was probably better to take a more low key approach to curb expectations.

Hasn't anybody ever heard of the saying "You've got to walk before you run?"

Sometimes the best route is to let the press and audience discover things for themselves and keep the press on a low simmer. In that way, the kinks can be worked out over time and if the product works, it's a genuine success. If it fails, it doesn't look like a major calamity where you have to put out a million fires at once, the ones that were originally lit from all that over the top hype.

At least when Fox knew that there was a tidal wave of interest coming to its big winter movie, James Cameron's Avatar, it got fans and bloggers invested first. They were invited to 20-minute sneak previews last spring so they would be wowed on their own by the real thing, and let that carry the buzz all the way to December.

NBC took a multi-million gamble and now it looks like they lost with lousy ratings, no positive support from the critics and affiliate backlash. Well, things like this happen to large corporations all the time. They apologize, put on a calm face, find ways to correct the mistakes or rid themselves of a bad fit by selling or closing it, and then they move on.

The sting hurts and eventually it goes away.

However, the lesson of overhype does not.

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