Boy oh boy, do we have things to talk about! This past week has brought late night TV into the top headlines, as NBC is looking to shake things up once again by moving Jay Leno back into his old post-news slot, potentially screwing over Conan O'Brien in the process. My assessment isn't emotionless, and it isn't without bias, but it is based on nearly 20 years of devoted late night television viewing, and a pretty good handle on TV as a whole. This is going to be long, so if you don't have the time, just skip ahead to the guest listings down below.
NBC is by far the worst-run network on television -- and I say this despite the fact that I personally love 5 of their prime time shows (Community, 30 Rock, The Office, Parks & Recreation, Chuck) 3 of their late night shows (The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live), and even still watch Heroes! But just because they've made a few shows that I personally watch, doesn't mean they know how to run a network (and by "they", I specifically mean Jeff Zucker). In the last 10 years, Jeff Zucker's leadership has carried NBC from the #1 network on television to a #4 that isn't even close to FOX, CBS, and ABC. All those shows that I mentioned that I love? Nobody really watches them, so it's irrelevant. NBC has continued to make a mix of critically-acclaimed shows that don't have mass appeal, and horrible pieces of TV trash.
But we should bring this all back to the current late night issue. 6 years ago, Conan O'Brien's contract with Late Night was almost up, and FOX was showing significant interest in the hot late night commodity. NBC obviously didn't want to lose him, and Conan wanted to remain loyal to NBC as long as he was assured he would eventually get a shot at hosting The Tonight Show, the same show hosted by Johnny Carson that he remembers watching with his father as a child. So with all of that, Jay Leno agreed that 5 years from then (at age 59) he would graciously leave The Tonight Show and hand over the reins of the long-running franchise to Conan. He said at the time that he wished to avoid all the choas, hurt feelings, and broken friendships that took place in 1992 when NBC chose Jay Leno to succeed Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show instead of Carson's personal choice, David Letterman (who then left his Late Night gig on NBC for an earlier slot on CBS).
Fast forward to a year ago, and Jay starts making jokes on his show and to the press about how NBC was cancelling him and "pushing him out", despite his #1 ratings. How he was being pushed out when he agreed to sign the agreement 5 years previous is anybody's guess. Regardless, NBC began to get worried that when Jay ceded The Tonight Show to Conan, he'd then bolt to FOX or ABC to directly compete with their new guy. So they frantically put together a plan to keep Jay at NBC, giving him a 5-nights-a-week talk show in prime time. This boneheaded decision immediately undermined Conan's new Tonight Show (and the long-running show's legacy in general) by making it a second-tier talk show on the network. The fact that NBC endlessly promoted the new Jay Leno Show's fall launch right after Conan took over The Tonight Show, while barely giving a mention to Conan, didn't help either. Then there was the creative community, who were (rightfully) upset that NBC was taking 5 hours of their weekly schedule away from potential new scripted shows in place of the cheap talk show alternative. Finally, there were the angry affiliates, who had to deal with a relatively low-rated talk show as the lead-in to their evening news programs rather than the typical 10pm drama. Their collective ratings have dropped between 5 and 25% since Leno launched in September. It's really the affiliates that have strong-armed NBC to cancel the 10pm Jay Leno Show. But the affiliates haven't made NBC try to put Jay back in late night.
Yes, Conan's ratings haven't been as strong as Jay Leno's were a year ago. But Jay Leno built that audience over 16 years, and nobody in their right mind would think that Jay and Conan attracted largely the same viewing audience. Plus, if people were watching Jay Leno at 11:35pm, and most people will likely watch only one talk show a night, they could just watch Jay an hour earlier and skip the new Tonight Show altogether. Jay spent several years after he took over from Johnny Carson building his audience until he finally began regularly beating Letterman in the ratings. Conan himself took a few years to grow into his spot on Late Night in its earlier years, growing from mixed reactions and only a cult following to critical acclaim and ratings successes. There was no reason for anyone to think Conan would be able to bring in the same numbers during his first couple years on The Tonight Show, yet somehow the media and NBC ignored history and the circumstances, and have branded him a failure. This, despite every indication that over time, Conan would be able to bring his numbers up while finding his footing on the new show.
Instead, NBC now wants to move Jay Leno back to 11:35pm for a half-hour version of The Jay Leno Show, push Conan's Tonight Show back until 12:05am, and push Jimmy Fallon's ever-improving Late Night back to 1:05am. Conan now has to make a decision: keep hosting the celebrated (if now slightly tarnished) Tonight Show a half hour later than it's aired in half a century, or bolt from the network he's shown extreme loyalty to and look for work elsewhere, potentially leaving his entire staff -- who along with Conan, moved their families across the country from New York to Los Angeles for the new show earlier this year -- without jobs until he found a new home. It's a tough decision!
Creatively, I think Conan should leave. Besides the fact that NBC has rewarded his loyalty with a big F U (and somehow rewarded Jay's weak numbers in prime time with his old time slot), he could also probably do a lot more interesting things on, say, FOX at 11pm, or even on HBO. However, he will still get to host The Tonight Show if he stays. He'll still have his huge contract. His staff will all still have guaranteed jobs. And he won't have to become the answer to the trivia question, "Who hosted The Tonight Show for the shortest stint in history, before being replaced by its former host?"
We could endlessly debate who is funnier -- it's obviously Conan O'Brien and his writing staff -- but people still want to watch Jay Leno for whatever reason. Not enough people for prime time, mind you, but humourless individuals out there do still want to tune into his middle-of-the-road "comedy". I just wish that Jay didn't want to feed his ego so much that he insisted on still being on TV every day past the age of 60, ignoring his supposed desire 6 years ago to avoid the same painful transition to The Tonight Show he experienced when taking over for Johnny Carson. I wish Jay wasn't so self-involved that he is seemingly blind to what his decision in 2004, reversal of that decision in 2009, and then hostile takeover of the 11:35pm time slot in 2010 has done to his reputation and the comedy community as a whole. NBC may ultimately be the ones to blame for this whole mess, but Jay Leno played a significant part -- and for a guy considered "the nicest guy on TV", he's showing more and more that it might've all been an act.
Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of ShowbizMonkeys.com. When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found at The Purple Room in Winnipeg, where he is Artistic Director. (@comedygeek)
Good article, though clearly you're very emotionally biased, and I think that might show even to a reader who doesn't know you. But on the plus side, at least you didn't use the word "bolt" too often! :P
thank you thank you thank you!
that was much appreciated.
man, I never liked Leno, and with him returning I started to dislike him a fair bit, but now..... wow.