Leno learning: the triumph of mesmerizingly particular culture

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.

10 thoughts on “Leno learning: the triumph of mesmerizingly particular culture

  1. Mary Schmidt

    It’s telling that NBC keeps countering that it’s “so cheap” to produce, like that makes all the difference.

    Somewhere along the line, they confused cost control with effective product development & marketing.

  2. Jason Laughlin

    The man with the ‘fro is the late Bob Ross. And said ‘fro is mesmerizing in and of itself. I was actually the guy at AIGA who chatted with you about Antiques Roadshow, and your post keeps me thinking about provenance (sometimes interchangeable but sometimes not with authenticity) vs. just story or narrative and how it seems to be showing it’s importance more and more.

    Among the many reasons Leno is massively hemorrhaging viewers is there seemed to be an expectation of his show being something new and something Leno had some sort of passion for. Perhaps Leno was going to show what his true persona and comedic brand was, or whatever. NBC pimped this thing like it was the second coming and in the end all we got was the Tonight Show an hour-and-a-half earlier. Everything was a big farce. It sort of felt like a trick, and it seems to have pulled the curtain back to show that Leno and his show were just a formula, a template – that doesn’t work at 10 o’clock.

  3. srp

    The key to a successful variety show today is dancing girls. Fly girls, Solid Gold dancers, whatever… just bring out the dancing girls. A variety show should feel like a party, and everybody’s been conditioned by music videos to think that a scene isn’t fun and energetic unless it has lots of pretty ladies in motion. A good chunk of the audience for Dancing with the Stars probably is attributable to the same factor.

  4. raymund mitchell

    I dont mind Leno at 10pm. It’s done wonders for my personal viewing habits. I know there’s nothing good on NBC at 10 o’clock, so there’s one less piece of data to consider in my life.

  5. Domen

    You’ve stumbled upon the all too familiar Youtube feeling of “how did that trivial, weird… get so many views?”
    At the end of the day it’s usually the clumsy and awkward friend we want to hang out with not the shiny celeb.

  6. Taylor Davidson

    Morgan’s comment above is exactly what I wanted to say.

    To which I’ll add: the beauty of media today is that the economics of production and distribution have made it more possible than ever to succeed by serving niches.

    The key to serving a niche: defining one’s “addressable market” (the set of people that something should appeal to) and then serving that addressable market as perfectly and ruthlessly as possible (capturing a large enough share of that market to succeed).

  7. Omar Tinoco

    Grant, It was a pleasure to hear your thoughts at the AIGA conference in Memphis. Chief Culture Officer should be just as important as CEO or CFO.

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