Since the Jay Leno Show premiered in September, it's been clear NBC had made a terrible, terrible mistake. It was totally and completely obvious that Conan's schtick would fall flat at 11:35, that Leno's audience wouldn't sit through both shows (making either one or both a failure), that the cost-saving measure of putting a talk show on at 10 pm wouldn't off-set the ratings drop and general freak out amongst the affiliates. Obvious to everyone, except the executives over at NBC. So, here's what we know at this point: NBC has canceled the Jay Leno Show but is not ending their association with Leno himself. The entire world is scratching its collective head, with cause. There's a lot going on here, so let's get started.
The plan now is for NBC to show the Olympics at 10 pm while they develop a slew of new pilots for that hour. They're pretty lucky to have anything to run in that timeslot right now, even though it's been reported that they're going to lose upwards of $200 million on the Olympics this year, after having paid over $800 million for the rights to air them. Leno will get a half-hour show that begins at 11:35 and the Tonight Show will air at 12:05, obviously making it either "the Last Night Show" or "the It Just Became Tomorrow Show." What's really interesting is that Conan's contract ties him to the title "the Tonight Show" but doesn't proscribe when said show must air. The question that then remains is: what will Conan do?
As noted in the Times articles above, FOX gas been heavily pursuing Conan, figuring that he'll be so insulted by this turn of events that he'll flee NBC. Should this be the case, it would be pretty ironic considering that NBC got into this whole mess because they didn't want to relive the Letterman exodus; when Conan was promised the Tonight Show five years ago, it was for the express purpose of not losing him.
Except, that's all over now. And Conan has answered the question above.
Just yesterday, Conan released a statement asserting that he will not accept the move to 12:05, for the sake of the legacy and history of the Tonight Show, and he's right. The Tonight Show needs to be at 11:35 pm, it's been on at that time for years and years and the thought of making such a change is kind of mind-bogglingly absurd. NBC is considering making such a change because they want to keep Leno so bad, and that leads to a couple of more questions: what's so great about Jay Leno? What does he have on Jeff Zucker? Why won't he just retire? And, the big one, where will Conan go now?
Attempting to figure out what makes Leno so valuable to NBC is really where it all begins. Conan's failure in the 11:35 slot isn't just a consequence of his schtick and his comic sensibilities, it's a result of NBC undermining him and his stint at host of the Tonight Show by creating the Jay Leno Show in the first place. How could Conan succeed with that sort of weight? The world decided that everything would fail when that show was created, and it's really tough to recover from that sort of pre-launch consensus. As soon as NBC showed how unwilling they were to truly turn the reigns over to Conan, as soon as they showed how they didn't really want to let Leno go somewhere else, as soon as the affiliates flatlined at the idea of Leno leading into their local news broadcasts, the writing was on the teleprompter. But, none of this answers why NBC needs Leno so badly. Obviously, he did great as the host of the Tonight Show, he was the ratings leader, but they were still willing to push him aside for Conan to take over back in 2003. And they did this because they didn't want to repeat the Letterman debacle, but they couldn't really do it so they gave Leno the 10 pm slot. It's a terrible spiral of indecision and insecurity. And NBC was, and is, desperate.
It makes one wonder why Leno agreed to this in 2003. Did he think he was gonna be ready to leave the scene by the time his extension was up? He must have, right? Clearly that's not the case. But, what originally was a failure of character on the part of NBC executives has become a failure on the part of Leno. Dude needs to just retire. The fact that he simply won't walk away is causing immeasurable strife, most especially to the person who he was supposed to pass the torch to. Though I've never been a Leno hater, it certainly seems that he and NBC deserve each other at this point, he's looking like one big jerk in this whole thing, a showbiz version of Brett Favre, selfishly waffling on retirement and leaving disaster in his wake.
As a quick aside, I know Letterman is loving this whole thing, Leno and NBC being arch-rivals, but as far as I'm concerned, he looks like a total fucking hypocrite for calling out people's motives and shortcomings, we are only three months removed from an infidelity-fucking young female staffers-blackmailing scandal after all. I've always found him smug, but he's absolutely grating now. It's revolting.
And he really should have been the one who gained the most. With NBC falling apart, Letterman's in the catbird seat, sitting high above his competitors and watching them fail. But the true winner here is Conan. He can write his ticket now, he can get paid by whomever, and take a large share of the audience. He's created so much goodwill for himself through the act of getting screwed that he'll be far better off wherever he ends up. And that's only right; Leno's failure at 10 pm shouldn't have affected his show and his tenure as host of the Tonight Show, a promotion that was well deserved. It's indicative of larger failures, the failures of NBC.
As I mused about a bit when ER ended, NBC's fall from "must see" to "disaster area" has been overwhelming. One might think that this debacle will kill the network forever, but I feel the opposite. When the creation of the Jay Leno Show was announced in the Spring, it seemed the first few bars of a swan song, what with cutting five of a network's most important hours, the hours given over to serious dramas (usually). At least, that can come back now and the march towards all-reality and all-variety schedules for networks can be delayed a bit. If only Jay Leno would go away, we would all be better off.
Come on, Eldrick.