Jay Leno's show is doing so badly, it is now seen to endanger the health of NBC. This is failure of an almost epic scale. People are using language like "complete calamity" and "utter disaster."
And it tells us that the strategists at NBC miscalculated badly.
Let's suppose that they thought to themselves, "American culture has fragmented beyond all expectation."
And let's suppose they followed up with, "the way to speak to this culture diversity is with diversity. Let's revive the variety show."
It's a little like the Long Tail argument: if a fragmented marketplace, the smart thing to do is to own the pipeline. As long as you carry everything, in the manner of an Amazon or a YouTube, you don't have to worry about fragmentation. Build a variety show: you've got something for everyone.
But it's not clear that this logic works on TV, or in other cultural venues. Didn't someone try to put Rosie O'Donnell in charge of a variety show? And it didn't work there. It appears to be failing in the Leno case as well. (This is a useful second test, because Leno is bland and uncontroversial as Rosie was provocative. His failure says, perhaps, it's not about the host. It's about the format.)
In point 1 of the previous post, I was trying to figure out what works in a fragmented culture and I found myself arguing that what we want is the mesmerizing and the place we find the mesmerizing is not the show that has "something for everyone." It's in the show that is unbelievably particular, that appears to speak to no one at all.
For no good reason, I was thinking yesterday about that weird "learn to paint" show on public broadcasting by the guy with the fro. It turned out to be one of the great hits of the 1990s. And I was talking to someone at AIGA about the unexpected success of the Antiques roadshow.
Both these shows are mesmerizing. You can enter the room when someone is watching them, and they may not see you. Certainly, if I am watching AR, I have no idea where I am. Natural disasters can take place around me. Empires can come and go. I'm watching some 45 year old women shyly describe how she found this lamp in her attic. "I think I might be Dutch," she says. Fascinating.
And what makes these cultural productions mesmerizing remains to be seen. But I think it's something to do with how fantastically particular they are. They are in fact anti-variety. They are not built to maximize interest, or extend the reach of the show. They are exactly what they are, and for some reason, they act like a Zeno's paradox that takes out of the here and now into… Well, we don't really know where they take us. We just know we like going there.
We may take this as yet another indication of the death of the mass culture and mass markets, I guess. But who knew this is where we would end up. Interesting.
Carter, Bill. 2009. Debate Over Effects of Leno's Show. New York Times. October 11. here.