Sunday, June 24, 2012


Get the Xanax. An empty desk panics network executives.
It's the thing that David Letterman, Conan O'Brien and Ann Curry all have in common.

It creates the foundation for the problems that manifest when talent retires or leaves the network's core daily TV programs like THE TODAY SHOW and THE TONIGHT SHOW.

It's The Chair Clause, the ultimate contractual pacifier of talent in television to promise them the "legacy" job of hosting or co-hosting their dream job in the big show when a Johnny Carson, Jay Leno or Katie Couric moves on, retires or is forced out.

It is also the ultimate sign of corporate folly to even use the clause in the first place as a "tool" to mange the network talent.

To promise any Curry or O'Brien a host chair at a point 3-5 years or more in the future is to ignore whatever the circumstances of the marketplace or environment are going to be at that time for the network. These same execs can't commit to more than 13 episodes right now in prime time but know exactly what they will need 5 years from now in late night or the morning show?

Would anyone like to be locked into any preemptive future business decision they made 5 years previously, forced to ignore current events and conditions?

No NFL team guarantees a back-up quarterback the job when the 1st stringer retires or is hurt.
The back-up gets a chance to win it with everyone else.
They fill-in, evaluate, recruit and and try-out all available talent and find the best person for the job.

The Chair Clause never seems to work out the way you want it. 
Letterman had it and Leno didn't.
Jay has been a winner with the job Dave had locked in his contract.

The clause doesn't work to help keep the talent long term either.
Conan had the clause so NBC could keep him and now he's at TBS.
Dave had it at NBC and he is at CBS now so there is a pattern here too.
At this point we could put even money on Ann Curry hosting 20/20 on ABC within a year or two.

The correct answer and strategy for any TV network to replace a core host is this:
Wait, Test, Guest and Hire.

Wait until your current host announces a retirement, doesn't renew their contract or quits.
Don't promise the job away before this point ever!

Test the market.
Who is available? What is the market like?  Is it where you thought it would be 5 years ago? What are your networks needs going forward for the next 5-10 years? They call it due diligence for a reason people.

Guest hosts are your friend.
Hey network executive, you just got divorced from your talent. You don't want to date around a little before you walk down the aisle again? Steve Allen just up and left the Tonight Show and NBC hired Jack Paar after six months of testing guest hosts. The show's ratings doubled.

Hire "the One".
The same thing happened when Jack Paar left the Tonight Show.
6 more months of guest hosts and another 6 months to wait for Carson's contract with ABC for Who Do You Trust? to expire. The show's ratings doubled again.
Then Carson ran for 30 years at #1 in the ratings so the wait was worth it wasn't it?

More recently this process worked out quite well for CBS and THE LATE SHOW.
They found Craig Ferguson after a long guest host testing period.

The major difference in the two approaches can be looked at thus:
One is forced and preemptive, the other is organic and reactive.
One says let's fix what isn't broken and the other says let's cross that bridge when we get there.
The business of Television is like a journey, daily, weekly, seasonal so take the latter approach.

I know network execs who will argue with me on this especially about challenges presented by the "idiosyncrasies" of on-camera talent..
"Kevin, you don't know the ego's these people have. I'll lose the talent if I don't make this promise and that will make me look bad at work."

To this I respond:
1. Yes, I know the egos. You can't control them, you can only feed them.
2. You will lose the talent anyway eventually if they don't get everything they want including success.
3.  All you're doing with the clause is preventing yourself from building and profiting off your next Jimmy Fallon or Craig Ferguson with the added benefit of creating enough "public scandal" to fill two books, endless gossip columns, blogs and an HBO TV movie.

Right now we may not know who NBC has already secretly promised Matt Lauer and Jay Leno's jobs to just yet and hopefully for NBC they don't either.

The simple rule for NBC executive's and those at other networks regarding similar core legacy news/entertainment shows should be, like their shows are named, to think about TODAY and TONIGHT.  Just don't ever think about tomorrow until it comes.