The news broke last night that Jay Leno’s 17-week experiment in prime time television is going to end. That would leave three late-night talk show hosts — Leno, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Fallon — fighting over 2 1/2 hours of airtime.
A lot of speculation has been drummed up as to what is going to happen. Is Leno going to accept a half-hour show? Is O’Brien jumping ship? Is NBC ditching Fallon after he has created a hip, Arsenio Hall-esque atmosphere on his show with The Roots as his house band?
Let’s take a rational perspective on this and apply the criteria found in the 1971 book Essence of Decision by Graham Allison. I think we can get a perspective on this, given the fact that we have some people in the decision process (such as O’Brien and NBC Universal president Jeff Zucker) who had the opportunity to take classes from Allison while both were at Harvard.
Allison’s Model 1 is the Rational Actor Model, which says that the main actor (in this case, NBC Universal) examines a set of goals, evaluates them according to their usefulness, then picks the one that has the highest value to the actor.
In this model, the value are ratings. And we’re not just talking about the normal Neilsens, but the desirable 18-34 demographic that advertisers covet. In terms of overall ratings, the biggest value would be to keep Leno (whose ratings were about a 1.2 to a 1.4 share) and O’Brien (1.2) and dump Fallon (0.7). In terms of contractual obligation, the best value is to keep O’Brien and Fallon and dump Leno’s contract (for reasons we’ll explain below, O’Brien is, at best, undumpable).
Allison’s Model 2 is the Organizational Process Model, which holds that an existing bureaucracy (in this case, the structure and contractual obligations of NBC Universal) places such limitations on what the actor (NBC) can do, that the leadership is limited to pre-existing plans. Leaders (in this case, the Board of NBC Universal), because of time resource limitations, will tend not to evaluate all possible courses of action to see which one is most likely to work. Rather, leaders would settle on the first proposal that adequately addresses the issue.
One can argue, given the speed this story moved in the last 48 hours, that this was the model that was originally considered. Many of the contraints that were built NBC’s decision were of their own making; O’Brien’s contract with NBC calls for him to be paid $45 million if he was still with the network and not the host of The Tonight Show. It’s a devious two-way poison pill, and it will be interesting to see if Fox or a cable entity is willing to make a bid knowing this up front.
The third Graham Allison model, the Governmental Politics model, holds that an organization or nation is best understood by the politicking and negotiation of those involved in decisionmaking, and that such negotiations can lead to individual decisions and actions that the group as a whole would disagree with.
It is known that O’Brien and Zucker don’t like each other. O’Brien was the president of The Harvard Lampoon when his organization played a prank on the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, when Zucker was its president. Here’s one take from someone who interviewed both.
You might have gotten a preview of this situation if you watched the HBO movie “The Late Shift” in 1996, which saw Leno’s manager Helen Kushnick get her boss the “Tonight Show” gig. Letterman, however, brought in the muscle of agent Michael Ovitz and got himself a deal to go to CBS, where he has been ever since.
However, given the ugliness of what happened in the 1990s, I would not be surprised to see some toes stepped on if NBC really thinks they’re going to have 2 1/2 hours’ worth of talk shows after the late local news.
It’s been a few years since I used Allison’s models of decisionmaking to explain anything: perhaps I oughta brush them off every once in a while.