Leno vs. Conan and the perils of owning content

Telecom companies for the most part do not strive to be mentioned on TV or in the gossip columns unless the topic is how they are benefiting from some competitor's buffoonery.

The pending Comcast-NBC Universal deal actually got a mention this week in David Letterman's "The Late Show" Top Ten List, as Letterman joked about Comcast possibly having cold feet about the deal in light of the ongoing Jay Leno vs. Conan O'Brien "The Tonight Show" tussle.

In the content realm, celebrity controversies and programming crises are the order of the day. Any telecom company buying into that realm needs to be wary of the sometimes unwanted publicity that comes with that. Believe it or not, you will sometimes be the butt of jokes made by people who work for you--telecom firms can avoid message board insults much easier than jabs from TV hosts.

As Comcast seeks to create a massive content joint venture with NBC Universal, "The Tonight Show" is just one horse in a huge stable of content properties. Letterman may joke about Comcast being nervous, but it's not the linchpin in the deal, and the Leno vs. Conan flap is not anything that will drive Comcast away. Like many cable TV firms and telcos, Comcast knows the value that content ownership will bring it in a world where service providers are battling over delivering content to any device, anywhere.

As the Comcast-NBC deal proceeds, the Leno vs. Conan fight won't require any input from Comcast, and the company shouldn't feel compelled to comment on the issue. Anyway, Comcast will have its hands too full with regulatory matters late at night to be watching much TV.

Still, there are contract dollars, ad revenues and ratings at stake as the Leno vs. Conan controversy continues to unfold, though it's not yet clear how NBC's bottom line will be affected. If and when it's a measurable effect, maybe Comcast can use its new leverage controlling the joint venture to hold NBC chief Jeff Zucker's feet to the fire.

But, for the most part, they should stay out of this fight, or risk further insult. As cable TV firms and telcos become more likely to own content properties in the future, they will have some new influence in the content realm, but they probably will--or at least should--leave the decision-making to the experienced content executives. If a bottom-line conscious telco executive, for example, was given the reins of a network like NBC, your new host of "The Tonight Show" would be low-cost option Jimmy Fallon. Nobody wants that. -Dan

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