We've Got Hollywood Covered

How NBC Once Again Pissed Off Everyone

Despite lessons learned from the Conan/Leno disaster, the network still acts like Lucy with the football and its shows

It was the worst possible coincidence. On the very day that NBC announced a snazzy social media marketing initiative aimed at building viewer loyalty, it pissed off those same people – along with its own talent and the creative community – by fumbling the “Law & Order” cancellation.

When news broke the afternoon of May 13 that the 20-year series was canceled, it was a seismic jolt. For starters, there had been mounting on-background affirmations, seemingly from the camps of both NBC and producer Dick Wolf, that renewal was a near-certainty.

Also, with the final May 24 episode in the can, there was no chance to tie up loose ends and see the characters off – courtesies commonly extended to series with 1/10 the longevity.

The significant 21st season, when “L&O” would become the longest-running scripted series on US primetime television, was something viewers wanted to experience. None as much as Wolf himself, a linchpin creative talent at NBC whose “L&O” franchise is embedded in the network’s schedule. Just five months earlier, no less than NBC’s president of primetime entertainment Angela Bromstad publicly referred to herself as “a ‘Law & Order’ junkie” who didn’t want to be responsible for pulling the plug before the record-breaking year.

Knowing that it was squaring off against a warhorse, one of its most valuable producers and a famously passionate fan base … coming off a season more embarrassing than even the 1983 “Manimal” low point … knowing it had fed into (and certainly didn’t deflect) speculation of renewal … needing to put its best face forward to advertisers in four days at its upfront … and with weeks, possibly months, to plan for this potential outcome … what was NBC’s strategy to buffer and position this?

PR 101 would be to get ahead of the rumors and make this decision public with a gracious standalone announcement and have media talking points, social websites’ comments and Audience Services e-mail responses at the ready. Ideally with Wolf and the show on board.

NBC chose to handle it their old-fashioned way: by doing pretty much nothing. It was Conan, Leno and the “Tonight” show all over again.

After the news leaked Thursday afternoon, NBC officially no-commented to the media for nearly 18 hours. Even stranger for a company that boasts about its digital and social media talents, it appears to have posted nothing – not even a polite vague acknowledgement – on the numerous fansites, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Not even its own.

The information gap was filled by sources from both camps with various levels of actual knowledge and media relations skills. Half claimed the cancellation was done and irreversible while others said it remained undecided and the sides were talking. We eventually learned the truth was somewhere in the middle but in the meantime, these conflicting sides resonated across an increasingly angry digital community.

Finally, the next morning, NBC issued an announcement. It attempted a flimsy end run, announcing renewal of “SVU” and pick-up of a new LA “L&O” before acknowledging the cancellation. The requisite effusive language was there. Wolf’s comment wasn’t; he chose to issue a terse rejoinder.

With the bad news finally out, NBC’s still hiding. As of this writing, there’s nothing posted by a network representative on Twitter, Facebook or fansites including its own – a routine part of crisis PR. They have no dedicated response (another PR basic) to viewer e-mail coming in through the “Contact Us” system on NBC.com.

I tested this by sending the “L&O” path a question and comment and got the following reply:

Thanks for your email. NBC values your comments, but unfortunately, due to the volume of emails we receive, we cannot respond to each one. Please check our FAQ section to see if your question is answered there…

…We would also like to hear more of your opinions about television and the programs you watch. If you would like to share your feedback with us by becoming part of our viewer panel, please visit the following link…

Once you join, you'll occasionally be invited to take Internet surveys, which are fun to do and usually take about 5 minutes to complete. The information you give will have an impact on the television programs you enjoy.

Thanks for logging on to NBC's websites.

Was NBC caught off-guard with the decision or its timing? Did they think no one cared? Is this ostrich imitation the strategy?

Hard to tell. But despite lessons learned from the Conan/Leno disaster, NBC still acts like Lucy with the football and its shows, creative talent and viewers are Charlie Brown.

While I can’t speak to the business aspects, it would’ve been a great PR gesture to enable “L&O” to reach 21 seasons. It would’ve sent the right signals to the creative community and viewers feeling let down by NBC’s programming choices this past season.  

Through its current scheduling and development slate, NBC is very publicly demonstrating a reinvigorated commitment to winning us all back.

But that message doesn’t appear to have trickled down to its PR effort. Which brings us back to that social media marketing initiative and the audience.

If you read through the blogs and tweets and Facebook walls about the “L&O” cancellation and how NBC handled it, you’ll see two frequent words: dignity and respect. Viewers, whether the loyal base or those who only watch occasionally these days, feel the show deserved more respect for what it had achieved and that NBC was treating it – and, in turn, them – with a lack of dignity.

The Fan It affinity incentive program, launching this Monday to coincide with the upfront presentation, will reward fans who use all the popular social media platforms to discuss NBC shows to their friends.

Yet considering the social media outcry over “L&O” and the network’s inaction, you have to wince at the press release quote by Adam Stotsky, its president of entertainment marketing: “What better way to spread the word about our shows then (sic) with the help of our loyal fans.” In the AP story he added, “If you create a respectful relationship with the audience and reward them in a respectful way, viewers appreciate it."

Since the wounds will still be a little raw come Monday, I’m guessing that many “L&O” fans will take to Fan It and discuss NBC programming in a way the network might not quite want.

Personally, I’m on Team McCoy.

Flackback will explore the art and artifice of entertainment PR.  The author has 25 years' corporate experience and has finessed everything from a celebrity's drunken surprise marriage to his best friend's 16-year-old daughter to a 20-minute advance warning that her company's president was being fired. And she sees little difference between these scenarios.  She's chosen candor over a byline.