Mark Cuban on Jeff Zucker’s Leno-Conan debacle: ‘The exact right move’

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You gotta’ love Mark Cuban, the famously contrarian, shoot-from-the-hip owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who’s best known in Hollywood as the indy film patron behind 2929 Entertainment and the Landmark Theater chain.

Whatever happens in the NBA, Cuban is usually mad about it, resulting in a record $1.6 million in fines for the kind of maniacal court-side behavior that makes the Washington Wizards gunslinger Gilbert Arenas look like a choirboy. In the movie business, Cuban has been a true maverick, pioneering the game-changing plan of releasing films (such as Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Bubble’) day and date in theaters and on VOD and DVD, so far with little success.


But now he’s really gone over the deep end. He’s weighed in on NBC’s Conan-Leno late-night debacle, saying on his blog that NBC dolt-in-chief Jeff Zucker’s disastrous decision to move Jay Leno to prime time was ‘the EXACT RIGHT MOVE.’


According to Cuban, NBC’s decision was a sensible response to the new realities of network TV. As he put it: ‘Business environments change. When they do, as broadcast network television has, and continues to, there are two basic choices: You can do it the way it’s always been done, or you can challenge yourself to change the game.’

Cuban contends that although moving Leno was a risk, it was appropriate, because if the gamble worked, the upside was huge, with a successful 10 p.m. Leno show changing ‘the economics of prime time TV dramatically for the better,’ since the cost of a talk show in prime time is far less than the cost of all the high priced hourlong dramas that normally occupy that time slot -- and often fail to find an audience anyway.

Cuban believes that even though the move failed, little has been lost, saying ‘in a few years the Leno experiment will be nothing more than a memory.’ But what really bugs Cuban is that the media was so quick to bash NBC and Zucker for making a bold move. Here’s how he puts it:

‘What I have learned from watching all of this is that corporate America has been neutered.... In today’s corporate world, if you don’t take risks, you don’t get skewered on blogs, on cable news, in the newspaper. Public condemnation appears to be a far worse consequence than financial success is a reward.... We need more Jeff Zuckers. We need people who try to change the game. Who don’t just approach problems with gutless answers.’

What Cuban fails to mention is the fact that the media didn’t bash Zucker for trying a bold experiment, but for tossing five hours of precious prime-time dramatic programming into the trash as well as making a promise to Conan O’Brien that he couldn’t keep -- i.e., making him wait around for years to get ‘The Tonight Show’ and then yanking it away as soon as the ‘bold experiment’ began to go wrong. After all, moving Leno to 10 p.m. was hardly a bold experiment. It was an act of desperate expediency when Zucker realized that he couldn’t let his late-night meal-ticket defect to a rival network.


As for the media, I think Cuban sells them short. They have been huge enthusiasts for all sorts of risk-taking experiments and new technology, including Apple’s iTunes music store (which revolutionized the music business at a time when the conventional wisdom held that no one would actually pay money to download songs) and digital cinema, which is changing the shape of the movie business as we speak. In fact, if Cuban looked even closer to home, he’d see that he’s received a ton of support for his day-and-date movie release experiment from many of the same bloggers and media types who’ve been bashing NBC and Jeff Zucker.

No one’s mad at Zucker for his bold risk-taking. We’re mad at him for his callousness and stupidity.