Monday, September 08, 2008

Wait, Wait...Don't Cannibalize Us!

So despite the apparent dismal failure that is the Car Talk TV show, it appears CBS is going to make a TV show out of Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me.

WWDTM is a top earner and top listener-getter. And with good reason, the show is consistently funny, consistently intelligent and - perhaps surprising for a comedy program - it's consistently informative as well. Taken with Car Talk (the radio show) I would say it's sort of to NPR what The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are to Comedy Central.

I wonder exactly what form the show will take. Arguably you could just use TV cameras to record the Thursday evening tapings of the show and that would still be fairly compelling television. Just tell the panel guests that they're on TV as well as radio and they'll ham it up appropriately. It'll make editing a little tough, simply because the live version of the show usually runs 20-50% longer than one hour, and they re-take several intros/outros at the end for later editing into the 59 minute program that radio listeners hear. That's still perfectly do-able for a TV audience, but as I said, it's a little trickier.

Getting back to the program style, I have a hard time imaging any formula BUT the "radio on TV" model actually working. Certainly you can't have a scripted'd be a disaster. At least 75% of the humor comes from how the panel reacts on the fly to the goofy news bits that host Peter Sagal feeds them, and most of that reaction comes from the feedback from the audience. You can't script this stuff.

But as a manager of an NPR station, my immediate concern is dilution of the brand, and dilution of the listener base. Right now the chief way listeners get WWDTM is through affiliate radio stations (although podcasting is, not surprisingly, a large and growing audience). If the TV show is good but is effectively duplicating the radio program, that could easily cost me listeners. If they intentionally wait to release the TV show to give time for radio stations to air it first, you risk having the "news" on the TV show being very stale by the time it airs.

Margaret Low Smith, VP for Programming at NPR, is quoted in the article as saying:

From the very beginning of our discussions with CBS, we have been guided by the principle "first, do no harm." We know that, above all else, we must protect the Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! brand, the radio show as we know and love it, and the important relationship between the show and Member stations. We are confident that our agreement with CBS will provide those protections and benefit Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!, NPR and public radio.

To which I reply: bullcrap! If WWDTM the TV show takes off like a rocket, you can bet CBS will ride that eagle 'til it screams...brand (and NPR) protection be damned. If the WWDTM TV show sucks, that's still not good because it reflects poorly on the overall brand. It's lose-lose for stations no matter how you slice it. Please tell when, in the last twenty years, has a successful TV show ever driven people to listen to the radio?

Seriously, if you can tell me, then I'll gladly revise my opinions...but I can't think of one at the moment.

I also have tremendous reservations about doing this on network TV. I was leery enough about This American Life appearing on Showtime (and I'm still not convinced that was a good thing) but I took comfort that at least Showtime had the willpower and resources to let TAL TV stay on the air to build an audience (I think the contract was for four seasons). With network TV, if you're not wildly successful after two episodes, you're toast.

On the other hand, I'm not so high-minded that I'm above being bribed; if this deal means more money for NPR, and NPR turns around and charges me less to be a WWDTM affiliate, then it certainly ease my conscience. :-)

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