Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Leno/Conan Thing

For those of you who don't know what's been happening lately over at NBC, let me first say, "Welcome! I don't know what you were doing in that cave for the last year, but it's good to have you back in civilization." Second, let me give you a quick rundown...
Back in 2004, NBC signed a contract with Conan O'Brien to continue hosting "Late Night" through 2009, at which point he would take over "The Tonight Show" from Jay Leno. (For those of you lacking sufficient math skills, that's five full years for everybody to prepare for the transition!) Leno, who would have had a 17-year run hosting "Tonight" by then, takes the news in stride at first, but eventually starts complaining. He doesn't want to give up the gig. Afraid he'll create a competing show at a competing network, NBC offers Leno the weeknights-at-10 prime time slot. Essentially the exact same show, but now an hour and a half earlier.

The move was controversial, and much was written about it. The number of jobs lost. The elimination of quality prime time dramas. "Cheap and easy" replacing "challenging and rewarding." Good for NBC, bad for TV overall. Good for the short term, bad for the long term. The majority opinion seemed to be that NBC had made a bad decision. Regardless, the decision had been made and we were all just going to have to wait and see how it turned out.

And now we know. It turned out poorly.

First, the big question: Was Leno at 10 PM a complete failure?

Answer: If you believe NBC, then not really. They went into this whole thing with the bar set pretty low. Leno's ratings wouldn't have to be very high in order for this show to be profitable. And his ratings weren't very high. But they still seemed to be in line with what NBC (publicly) claimed they needed in order to be a success.

So why did they shut the experiment down?

Because the fallout was nearly as Earth-shattering as the doomsayers had predicted, but in an unexpected way. While the ratings were good enough to make the "The Jay Leno Show" itself profitable, they brought down the network overall. Specifically, local news at 11 took a major hit. The individual affiliates derive most of their profits from local news. With Leno driving NBC's total viewership down, the news broadcasts were losing money. Something had to be done. NBC knew they had to provide stronger lead-ins for their affiliates.

NBC did not have a good decade. Their ratings have been on the decline pretty much since "Seinfeld" ended. "Friends" ended soon after that, then "Frasier," "The West Wing," and so on; and they weren't finding new hit shows to replace the old ones. By the time Conan's contract dictated that he take over "The Tonight Show," NBC was pretty down-and-out. Leno was already a ratings winner on "The Tonight Show," and NBC regretted losing him. The last thing they needed was one of their ratings champions to take those ratings to a different network with a competing late night show. So they made a poor decision, the thinking of which is essentially, "Well, our prime time ratings already suck. So instead of trying harder to make and promote better shows, let's just accept the smaller but steadier ratings that Leno supplies and transplant them into prime time." Defeatist ideology, to say the least.

But one element of the creation of "The Jay Leno Show" that received only a minimal amount of attention was how disrespectful it was to Conan. "The Tonight Show" is the granddaddy of all talk shows. It's what every talk show aspires to be. Conan set his sights on it, and worked his ass off to get to a position where he could finally get the dream job hosting that show. He played the game well, and he earned what he got. And just as he achieved that goal, NBC pulled the rug out from under him. "Sure, you're hosting 'The Tonight Show.' But the guy who was already hosting the show is now doing the exact same format, on the exact same network, and beating you to the punch by an hour and a half every night."

But Conan wiped the phlegm from his face and persevered. He'd had the odds set against him before -- when he was a complete unknown, doing oddball comedy on "Late Night" -- and had triumphed. It took a few years; but he worked hard, built that show up, became increasingly popular, grew the ratings, and eventually became a household name.

It took time, but things like this take time. Which is why it was yet another surprising wad of spit in the face when NBC made their recent announcement to move Jay out of prime time and reshuffle their entire late night schedule to accommodate him.

NBC has now added panic on top of bad decision-making and disrespect.

From the moment they announced the whole concept of "The Jay Leno Show," they were treating Conan poorly. They knew that, even though they were technically honoring Conan's contract, they were bastardizing what "The Tonight Show" means to people like Conan. They were also demonstrating a lack of faith in Conan, indicating that he couldn't win in the ratings without Leno's help... and God forbid if Conan had to compete directly with Leno on another network!

While "The Jay Leno Show" wasn't a traditional failure -- it's ratings were good enough to keep NBC happy -- provoking mutiny from your affiliate stations is still something I'd consider a failure. And when a show fails, you cancel it. Instead, NBC is bending over backwards to keep Jay happy, even at the expense of further disrespecting Conan and leaving "The Tonight Show" a shell of its former self.

If Jay returns to "The Tonight Show," he will be the most hated man in show business. In fact, he may already be.

Would Jay be agreeable to doing one episode per week, perhaps Friday? I've always said that that's what NBC should have given him in the first place. They were crazy to eat up every single weeknight with Jay. But once a week would fit the prime time mold better, and would probably make Jay's show stronger and more interesting.

At this point, Conan should walk no matter what. Even if NBC were to turn around and say, "We're cutting our relationship with Jay. He's off the network completely. We want you to stay on 'Tonight,' and 'Tonight' to remain at 11:30," it's too little too late. Conan can go anywhere from here. NBC needs him more than he needs them.

It's good that "The Jay Leno Show" is being taken down. This means more jobs for more people. And NBC may just be able to recover some of their former glory. My hope -- and I'm sure I'm being too optimistic here -- is that NBC has taken such a beating at this point that they'll be willing to take a chance on some innovative new shows to fill their 10 PM gaps. "When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose." Oh, I'm sure what will really happen is that they'll fall back on the safest thing possible -- five nights a week of "Law & Order," probably -- but this is their chance to build from the ground up and rebrand themselves as the network where interesting and unusual shows go to shine.

I hope that as a viewer, and as a potential new fan of the network.

1 comment :

  1. I agree. Conan should just say 'screw it.' As Weird Al tweeted this afternoon: "Conan: NBC's red-haired stepchild?"

    If Leno's ratings weren't great, rather than moving him back, they should've cut the # of days he's on. Even the Daily Show is only on 4 days a week.


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