Monday, March 1, 2010

NBC could have learned something from Coca-Cola

Leno’s back at 11:30 PM tonight as NBC attempts to “undo” their expensive decision to move Jay Leno to 10 PM and replace him with Conan O’Brien as host of the Tonight Show at 11:30 PM. After only 120 days with their new line up, the NBC network has decided their experiment in shifting time slots did not work. Conan has behaved as a gentleman and voluntarily given up his seat in NBC’s giant game of musical chairs so that his longtime personal friend, Jimmy Fallon, can remain in his new job hosting his old show, Late Night, at 12:30 AM.

It’s a shame the attempt to get “back to normal” had to be so dramatic. Perhaps NBC should have held a trial run and had Leno host some specials at 10 PM on low ratings nights, in order to test the waters to see if their viewing audience would watch him in an earlier time slot. Rather than cancel all the 10 PM dramas to make room for Leno, perhaps NBC might have tried airing him on a sister-network on cable, such as USA. Likewise, Conan could have guest hosted Leno’s show at 11:30 PM over the five years before his departure, just as Leno guest hosted the Tonight Show for Johnny Carson for five years – baby steps. Instead, the changes in programming were made with reckless abandon.

I am reminded of a similar situation several years ago in 1985 when the Coca-Cola corporation decided to revive interest in their products and boost sales by introducing “New Coke.” Not only was “New Coke” a major flop, the company found themselves attempting to win back old consumers by reintroducing their old formula 79 days later as “Coca-Cola Classic.” “New Coke” is now a distant memory as Coke Classic has rightfully regained its position as the only Coke. Although the actual total cost of the fiasco was not made public, it probably would have been cheaper, and definitely far less embarrassing for Coca-Cola to have simply lowered their prices and held a big sale.

Twenty years later in 2005, Coca-Cola was determined to not make the same mistake twice and introduced Coca-Cola Zero as an alternative to Diet Coke rather than attempt to replace it. Coke Zero, featuring a stronger flavor and more caffeine, has gained popularity, particularly among men, and sales are now 1.7% of the entire soda market compared to Diet Coke, which owns 5.2% of the overall soda market. If Coke Zero had not been a hit, it would have been a simple and painless procedure for the Coca-Cola company to take the product off store shelves. At some point in the distant future, it is possible that Diet Coke will slowly become the lesser favorite to Coke Zero, just as TaB, introduced in 1963 slowly has become the lesser favorite to Diet Coke, introduced about twenty years later in 1984.

Corporations need to consider consumer loyalty, which can be nearly impossible to predict, but easy to measure in small bits and pieces. The slow transition from Leno to Carson as Tonight Show host took place over five years from 1987 to 1992. Although Carson himself was unhappy with the change, the audience was used to Leno and the overall move was a success. Sadly, the transition from Leno to Conan was abrupt and jarring and appeared to come out of nowhere during the Spring of 2009.

The jarring movement of Jay Leno to 10 PM in September 2009 occurred within a few short months and was also not well received. The idea of watching Leno every night at 10 PM was too much for loyal viewing audiences to take and they found themselves switching the channel, and in some cases, finding old friends, such as “Medium,” which moved to CBS. The repercussions of having to cancel the TV dramas previously shown in the 10 PM time slot will no doubt be slow scars to heal. NBC is finding itself scrambling in an effort to replenish those time slots with new and exciting shows, such as “Parenthood” and the “Marriage Ref.” To keep old viewers from changing the channel at 10, NBC is also showing two-hour versions of “Law and Order,” “Law and Order SVU,” and “Dateline” this week.

I am hopeful that after the dust settles at NBC, not only will Jay Leno once again be bringing in high ratings at 11:30 PM, but Conan O’Brien will find a revived career in some other television production which utilizes his unique and brilliant comedic talents.

Other corporations should take this opportunity to learn from NBC’s mistake. When considering radical changes in your products, services, locations, hours, or employees, be sure to build in an “undo” button. It’s cheaper to “hit undo” than it is to try and rebuild.