Networks and Publishers Are a Lot More Similar Than You Think
I just finished The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy by Bill Carter, the national media reporter for The New York Times. It’s an excellent book, very well-sourced and thorough in its description of the changes NBC made to its schedule in 2009-10 that resulted in Jay Leno reclaiming The Tonight Show from Conan O’Brien and O’Brien leaving the network. (Incidentally, last year, on my other blog, West Virginia Business Litigation, I posted an interview with Patricia Glaser, who represented O’Brien in his negotiations with NBC.)
But toward the end of the book, when Carter is analyzing what happened and what it means for the future of late-night programs, he recounts a story from Lorne Michaels, the executive producer of Saturday Night Live, who described the reaction he received from an NBC executive in 1979 when he announced he was resigning:
At the time , the executive in charge of NBC Entertainment was Irwin Segelstein, a small bear of a man, a generation older than Michaels, who was then not yet thirty-five. Lorne walked into Segelstein’s office, sat down, and laid out all the reasons he had decided to resign. And Segelstein, who had a sardonic streak, listened patiently, not uttering a word until Michaels had finished. Then he launched into a story, a parable of sorts, one that touched on the religion of television:
“Let me just take you through what will happen when you leave,” Segelstein began. “When you leave, the show will get worse. But not all of a sudden — gradually. And it will take the audience a while to figure that out. Maybe two, maybe three years. And when it gets to be, you know, awful, and the audience has abandoned it, then we will cancel it. And the show will be gone, but we will still be here, because we’re the network and we are eternal. If you read your contract closely, it says that the show is to be ninety minutes in length. It is to cost X. That’s the budget. Nowhere in that do we say that it has to be good. And if you are so robotic and driven that you feel the pressure to push yourself in that way to make it good, don’t come to us and say you’ve been treated unfairly, because you’re trying hard to make it good and we’re getting in your way. Because at no point did we ask for it to be good. That you’re neurotic is a bonus to us. Our job is to lie, cheat, and steal — and your job is to do the show.”
Although Segelstein’s was a very cynical point of view, that doesn’t lessen its accuracy or currency (believe me, if you read The War for Late Night, you’ll realize that everything Segelstein said to Michaels in 1979 remained true in 2009 and 2010 — at least at NBC).
But it occurred to me in reading the Michaels anecdote that if you substitute “publisher” for “network,” you’ll have a very good understanding of how the publishing industry operates today.
Yes, there are significant differences between networks and publishers, but the challenges they have faced recently are nearly identical. Just as networks have seen the number of viewers drop due to competition from hundreds of cable channels and Internet sites such as YouTube, which means less revenue from advertising and smaller budgets for scripted programs — especially when reality shows like Survivor, The Biggest Loser, and The Bachelor remain popular — publishers face a shrinking number of outlets for their books, which will be made even worse by Borders’ decision to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy and close a third of its stores, and the increasing popularity of e-readers and e-books.
So Irwin Segelstein’s point to Lorne Michaels remains valid. If you’re an author, remember that the publisher’s job is to lie, cheat, and steal, and your job is to write the book. And really remember that when you’re negotiating a contract.