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Comcast unfair scapegoat for cuts at NBC's 'Tonight Show'

August 20, 2012|By Joe Flint
  • "Tonight" host Jay Leno is taking a big cut in pay.
"Tonight" host Jay Leno is taking a big cut in pay. (Associated Press )

It's easy to scapegoat Comcast for the budget cuts NBC made at "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" last week, and indeed there has already been speculation that this is part of the new owner's grand plan to slice and dice its way to big bucks.

It's a convenient explanation and an old story: A tightfisted new owner starts making cuts with little regard to what the impact will be on the product on screen. 

The only problem is that in this case, it isn't correct.

Officially, NBC is keeping quiet about what motivated the decision to lay off almost two-dozen staffers, leading Leno himself to take a big reduction in pay. Unofficially, people close to the show say the cuts were enacted because Leno was still producing his late-night show with the budget he was given two years ago for his ill-fated move into prime time.

Once quite profitable, "Tonight" has just been breaking even recently, and the inflated budget is the main culprit. According to one person with firsthand knowledge of the show, the budget for the prime-time version was about $2.3 million a week and it stayed at that level even when Leno returned to late night. After the reductions, the budget probably will be closer to $1.7 million weekly. Networks spend more on prime-time shows than late night because the audience is bigger and can command more advertising dollars.

Since taking control of NBC in early 2011, Comcast has been anything but cheap with the network. It shelled out about $4.4 billion to hold onto the Olympics through 2020 and agreed to pay almost $1 billion a year for the National Football League through 2022.

But sports isn't the only place where Comcast is opening its wallet for NBC. The network has also increased the amount of money it spends on entertainment programming. NBC has taken a swing-for-the-fences approach with shows such as last season's "Smash" and this season's "Revolution," both of which are expensive. While NBC's efforts hasn't resulted in any new hits yet, it certainly isn't for a lack of spending.

On the executive front, NBC has also overhauled its programming, marketing and scheduling teams. Top executives from Fox, CBS and Showtime have been recruited to NBC to help turn the Peacock Network around. Most recently, ABC's longtime scheduler Jeff Bader was brought in as president of program planning, strategy and research for NBC Entertainment. Most of the hires joined NBC with bigger titles and probably bigger paychecks than they had in their previous jobs.

There have been some cuts since Comcast took over. However, some of that can be attributed to new department heads doing some housecleaning, which was to be expected. What has not happened yet are across-the-board massive layoffs. 

None of this is to suggest that Comcast will act like a sailor on leave forever. The money it is spending on content will likely lead it to scrutinize where it can save a few bucks. But the spin that Comcast is looking to strip NBC to the bone the way Larry Tisch did with CBS in the 1980s and 1990s doesn't jibe with reality, at least right now.

The real mystery is why NBC allowed "The Tonight Show" to continue to operate with a prime-time budget for more than two years.

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