Did NBC Abandon Loyal Customers By Switching from Jay to Conan?


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Hey, entertainment is entertainment. Right? Not much to do with customer relationships. All that matters is edginess and under 40 consumers. Right?

Bovine waste matter. Before taking a 10° turn from relationship marketing to SFA and eventually CRM, starting in the early 90s, a major element of my consulting practice was in mature markets. I was in the thick of the battle, along with some great colleagues, to persuade marketers that older consumers were far more valuable than advertising agencies represented–fending off specious claims by agencies that consumers were brand loyal from their mid 30s on, never mind all the research debunking these claims.

When ABC canned Ted Koppel in 1995, I received a call from an NPR reporter. Told me he wanted to interview me off the record about my sense of what was really happening. I told him that ABC, like all networks was so fixated on younger consumers that Koppel’s attraction to older viewers was a death knell. Actually, my language was a bit spicier than that. One night my research partner David Mangen, who’s been involved in considerable CustomerThink research, called me, and said something like, “Boy, you didn’t hold anything back on that Ted Koppel interview. I’m amazed they aired it.”

Oops. Never, ever trust the media.

But I feel incredibly strongly about ageism in the media. It hurts people. It hurts advertisers. And it only helps advertising agencies filled with 20-somethings wanting to make their mark with “edgy” commercials that turn off older consumers too smart to fall for the gimmickry.

So along comes NBC, which was so afraid of losing youth-attracting Conan O’Brien it promised him the Tonight Show and ditched Jay Leno. Screw the viewers. Now, if you consider advertisers the customers, in a perverse way NBC did the right thing. Jay Leno doesn’t attract edgy, 20-something and early 30-aged generation whatever-the-hell-they-are. You know–the ones with no money these days. But advertising agencies are insistent that young-uns are the desired audience.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Too bad almost all the discretionary spending power–as in perhaps over 80%–is held by folks over 50. Folks who loved sitting back and watching Jay–funny but well inbounds of Conan, and more comfortable (and funnier) for older viewers. Big mistake, at least in my mind. I watched the first half hour of Conan’s debut. Hit the “off” switch. Gag me with a spoon. Forced. Awkward. Out of his element. Clearly overmatched. And is that the sound of network heads rolling? Could be.

Although this is a foreign concept to advertisers, they need to objectively asses the buying power of the audience they’re trying at attract; honestly discover what the most financially attractive audience wants; and dispense ear plugs to executives to drown out agency insistence on providing award-winning creative that appeals to very young audiences, the audience that so closely mirrors agency employee rosters, and that has no money.

And I’m not guessing about agency rosters. Just before we migrated to SFA/CRM-land, we conducted primary research into the ages and attitudes of agency employees. When the WSJ reported the outcomes, the agency community went into full bore denial. But we had them by the short hairs. Dead to rights. We had the data. The median-aged agency employee – especially in creative – could give a hoot about mature consumers.

I suspect a whole lotta over-50 viewers like me are done with the Tonight Show. Letterman appeals to us more than Conan. Intellectual wins hands down over sophomoric–at least at my age. And if more mature consumers migrate over, or just go to bed, who knows? Jay might be back. And it might not take all that long. Not that I think he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. But over the years he continued building up a loyal viewer-base–a base the NBC ignored–at its peril.


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