Are You Johnny Carson or SNL?

Twitter is abuzz this morning as news hit of Bill Simmons departure from ESPN. What happens over the next few months will go a long way to determine if ESPN built Saturday Night Live or was content to employ Johnny Carson. In a quick survey, sentiment is leaning heavily toward Simmons being the brand, not Grantland.

In the fall of 2011 TechCrunch’s founder, editor and most recognizable name, Michael Arrington, left.  Soon after the blog lost other prominent writers and then, in a larger blow, lost its COO Heather Harde. Way, way too much has already been written about this period. The media consensus was that TC was screwed. AOL had screwed up a great business and the value would soon be absorbed by new entrants like TheVerge and PandoDaily.

But that’s not what happened. The team rallied, new leaders like Alexia Tsotsis, Eric Eldon, and Leena Rao stepped up as writers. Leslie Hitchcock and Jesse Chambers did the same on the business side. Ned Desmond came aboard and provided the leadership needed to first bring about calm and then growth. TechCrunch had a huge year in terms of quality, traffic and revenue on the heels of having last rites delivered. Consensus that TechCrunch was all about Michael Arrington and Sarah Lacy was wrong. We discovered the business had real legs as a brand. It was about the format, the market, and the right leadership and it was a hue launching pad for tech writers’ careers.

TechCrunch was not the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson or other weekly late night talk shows. Those have been proven to be a product that works with the right personality (Carson, Letterman, Leno, Fallon) but can falter quickly with the wrong one (Craig Kilborn, Arsenio Hall). It was Saturday Night Live. As long as you keep the format and culture, you can continue to bring in new casts and do great work and continue to launch careers after Gilda Radner and Will Ferrell are gone. Martha Stewart Living and Oprah appear to be very tied to their founder. The Huffington Post and Business Insider have built businesses that could now withstand the departure of its founder. Which category does Grantland fall into?

John Skipper seems to think he’s Lorne Michaels building SNL with Simmons in the role of Chevy Chase or Eddie Murphy. I’m not so sure but I clearly remember seeing bets pile up against us 3 years ago. Writers at Grantland will have the chance to step up and take over. Executives at ESPN can show they’ve built a real brand that attracts real talent. Simmons will get the chance to show he is more than just a great writer but a savvy digital business person as well. As long as the podcasts and mailbags continue the fan base will be satisfied but if a business is created along the way will take longer to discover.