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Chuck vs. Leno

Sheila Murphy Seles
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In April 2009, a sandwich saved a television show. The sandwich was fairly large—12 inches, to be exact—but the feat was extraordinary nonetheless. Here’s what happened. Fans heard that the NBC comedy Chuck might be canceled at the end of the 2008–2009 television season, and they took the usual action fans take in these situations: they wrote letters to the studio and television network responsible for producing Chuck and putting it on the air. Then, they did something different—Chuck fans pled their case directly to Subway, one of the show’s prominent sponsors. On April 27, 2009, the day of Chuck’s season finale, fans went to Subway and bought foot-long sandwiches—a lot of foot-long sandwiches. They filled out comment cards, telling Subway managers that they bought the sandwiches to support Chuck. It worked. On May 19, 2009, NBC released a statement saying that Chuck had been renewed “due to an innovative advertising partnership with Subway.”

The campaign to save Chuck from cancellation, appropriately called the “Finale and Footlong” campaign, relied almost entirely on organization from the Chuck Internet community. The popular press eventually picked up on these fan efforts, but word spread primarily on Twitter and Chuck fan sites. The campaign was launched by fan Wendy Farrington (2009) through her LiveJournal page centralized on the fan website zachary-levi.com, which is named for (but not run by) the actor who plays Chuck. A description of the campaign on zachary-levi.com explains why the fans decided to buy sandwiches: “Lots of people want to help Chuck, but may not have the time or inclination to write letters, but the network will listen closer if we’re talking dollars. [. . .] The intent is to let the network and their sponsor know that we’ve received their message. This is something a Nielson [sic] box can’t do . . . this is a translation of fan loyalty into real dollars that NBC & Subway can measure” (Michelle 2009).

The fans behind the “Finale and Footlong” campaign made several assumptions about how the television business works:

  • First, watching the show isn’t enough for most fans to be recognized, since viewership is counted by a representative sample. To be heard by NBC, these fans felt they had to organize and take measurable action together to save Chuck.
  • Second, Nielsen ratings could not quantify the fervor of Chuck fans’ devotion, but purchasing sandwiches could send that message.
  • Third, the television network (NBC) would be swayed more by monetary transactions—turning “fan loyalty into real dollars”—than by letters of support. These fans understood that the television industry had underestimated their value as audience members, so they went around the established system—to do “something a Nielsen box can’t do”—and took matters into their own hands.
  • Fourth, by targeting one major advertiser rather than several, these fans felt they could centralize their efforts on a single stakeholder that would have greater access to the decision-makers than they did. Their message focused on what might be “in it for Subway” in the long run to help save Chuck.

The “Finale and Footlong” campaign not only gave us another season of a quirky dramedy; it also gave us a way to understand tensions around measuring and monetizing contemporary television audiences. By renewing Chuck based on fan activity, both NBC and Subway implicitly signaled their doubt about television ratings as an adequate measure of audience value. Of course, Chuck’s ratings weren’t terrible. According to a press release from NBC (2009), Chuck averaged 7.3 million viewers each week in a “highly competitive time period.” Chuck also overdelivered with very desirable high-income households making more than $75,000 annually. Had the ratings been worse, the show would have probably suffered a different fate. Still, this is an important story because NBC and Subway took a risk: instead of only trusting ratings points to make a decision about Chuck, NBC and Subway listened to fans who were eager to prove that the system was not working. Chuck fans bought sandwiches to demonstrate that they were the people Subway was trying to reach—people who would buy foot-long sandwiches. If the ratings system could effectively measure the real value of the television audience, Nielsen would have been able to tell NBC that these sandwich-buying people were watching Chuck in numbers that justified Subway’s ad dollars. But they couldn’t or didn’t. And so fans bought sandwiches and saved a show.

Meanwhile, on the Same Side of Town . . .

While Chuck fans were buying sandwiches to save their favorite show, NBC was hatching an unconventional plan of its own, which showed comparable dissatisfaction with the way television audiences are monetized. In the fall of 2009, NBC changed the flow of its prime-time programming, replacing an hour of scripted programming every weeknight with a talk show hosted by Jay Leno. Like Chuck fans, NBC executives attempted to get around the constraints of the television ratings system. But while Chuck fans circumvented NBC to prove their value directly to an advertiser, NBC created The Jay Leno Show in an attempt to make audience ratings nearly irrelevant to the bottom line. Unlike the expensive dramas NBC had previously aired at 10 p.m., Leno’s show was so inexpensive to produce that it could recoup costs and turn a modest profit even without high ratings.

The Leno experiment was at once a success and a failure for NBC. Critics attacked NBC and The Jay Leno Show with great vehemence. The New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin described Leno as a catastrophe, and she ridiculed NBC’s decision to air the show: “The forensic evidence so far indicates that a kind of death is taking place before our eyes; the only question is whether what we’re witnessing is an accident or a crime scene. [. . .] NBC’s attitude toward The Jay Leno Show signals a whole new level of indifference, resignation, and laziness” (2009).

The press continued to attack NBC even after Leno was pulled from prime time. On the heels of an announcement that Leno would leave the 10 p.m. slot and return to 11:35 p.m., Entertainment Weekly ran a cover story entitled “TV’s 50 Biggest Bombs and Blunders” (2010). The Jay Leno Show at 10 p.m. ranked number one. Still, even though Leno was ultimately canceled, it was clear that The Jay Leno Show had accomplished what NBC had set out to do: Leno made money for NBC even without good ratings.

Leno was profitable because it cost next to nothing to produce and it was full of product placements. According to Nielsen data, Leno had the most product placements of any broadcast or cable series in 2009. Leno was eventually taken off the air because its low ratings hurt NBC news broadcasts at 11 p.m. With Leno as a lead-in, affiliates in major markets reported losing nearly half of their 11 p.m. news audiences. Leno was also among the least recorded shows of the 2009–2010 television season. When NBC executives pitched Leno in the spring of 2009, they claimed his show would be “DVR-proof,” meaning that people would want to watch it live. Live viewing would mean more ad revenue for NBC, but it turned out that most people didn’t want to watch Leno at all.

Like Chuck fans and their sandwiches, the Leno experiment indicates the shifting value of television audiences. Both Chuck fans and NBC wanted to outsmart the ratings system: Chuck fans did it by appealing directly to sponsors, and NBC did it by making a show that didn’t need ratings to make money. Although these actions seem diametrically opposed—one the act of loyal fans who loved a TV show and the other the money-saving ploy of a large corporation—they both reveal a fundamental tension in the audience-research industry. The audience has monetary value to publishers and advertisers, but content has cultural value to viewers.

Sheila Murphy Seles is Director of Digital and Social Media with the Advertising Research Foundation. As a member of the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium research team, she authored two reports, entitled Turn On, Tune In, Cash Out (2010) and It’s (Not) The End of TV as We Know It (2009).

References

Farrington, Wendy. 2009. “Strategic Plan to Save CHUCK!” Don’t Freak Out (LiveJournal Community), April 8. http://community.livejournal.com/dont_freakout/160101.html.

Franklin, Nancy. 2009. “Leno at the Bat.” New Yorker, Oct. 5. http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/television/2009/10/05/091005crte_television_franklin.

Michelle. 2009. “Finale & FOOTLONG Campaign to Save CHUCK!” zachary-levi.com, April 10. http://zachary-levi.com/2009/04/10/footlong-campaign-to-save-chuck/.

NBC. 2009. “NBC Renews Popular Acton-Comedy ‘Chuck’ for the 2009–2010 Season with Subway as Major Sponsor.” NBC.com, May 19. http://www.nbc.com/news/2009/05/19/nbc-renews-popular-action-comedy-chuck-for-the-2009-2010-season-with-subway-as-major-sponsor/.

“TV’s 50 Biggest Bombs and Blunders.” 2010. Entertainment Weekly, Jan. 22. http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20338371,00.html.

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