Insight. Antics.


In Media on January 8, 2010 at 2:06 am

Through vague messages and a dubious PR job, news broke yesterday afternoon that NBC is planning to reinstate Jay Leno in his old slot. This is a bad idea.

The proposal appears to be to re-insert Leno at 11:35 right after the local news, but just for a half-hour, after which the current lineup would take over, starting at 12:05 with Conan O’Brien’s current Tonight Show running for an hour. Jimmy Fallon has got to be thinking, “How am I going to think of new ways not to be funny even later at night?” I’d rather watch Carson Daly.

NBC affiliates are pushing for some kind of change because their local newscasts are not getting a good lead-in from Leno, so this is what the network has come up with. Leno’s ratings fell after a decent start, but had since leveled off. Um, moving Leno from one side of the news to the other doesn’t sound like it’s going to fix a ratings problem.

This change is coming just as Comcast is about to take the reigns of NBC Universal. Perhaps this decision is also trickling down from them?

Either way, it’s a shortsighted, kneejerk reaction. It’s only been seven months. ABC has not given up on Jimmy Kimmel’s show in seven years (wow, that went fast) and he has gained in the ratings.

Conan’s finding his new voice. But David Letterman, in spite of, because of, or having nothing to do with his peculiar scandal, has taken his first big ratings lead in years, so the Peacock people are nervous.

It’s not a safer choice; it’s just looks that way now. Besides, one of these years, Letterman will retire (he’s almost 63 and has had heart trouble) and then NBC will be left with nothing, especially if Conan bolts for Fox or ABC.

It’s worth noting that I have nothing against Leno and think he is funny. (He actually cracked some good ones on this topic last night, if you watch below.) But it’s drive and hard work more than talent that propels his success. Conan is a naturally funnier person.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Sure, Conan is not putting up stellar ratings, but he needs time to hit his stride. He looks a little uncomfortable. It’s almost as if he has too many resources: more consistent A-list guests and a heftier budget than when he was at Late Night. His old show was brilliant because the ongoing shtick was that everyone acted like no one was watching and that the show was going to be bad… and then made great material out of it. On The Tonight Show, he’s had to go for the opposite extreme on a huge scale, and ironically, now nobody is watching.

I’m not saying it’s not funny, but even the “Twitter Tracker” segment is a bit much. Souped-up graphics and a giant sound stage do not brilliant entertainment make (see Spider-Man 3).

Nevertheless, NBC should know better. This is the network that stuck with an unknown show, renewing it for a second season despite lukewarm ratings, because they thought it deserved a shot. That show was Cheers.

Jeff Zucker, NBC Universal’s President and CEO, you need to give Conan at least a year. Not only do you owe it to CoCo since he’s worked at the net for 15 years for this chance and because it’s the right thing to do, but also because you’ll probably lose him otherwise. If not now, soon.

Don’t get me wrong, Zucker and the other execs have to game out what each host would do with each decision they make. Stay? Leave? If so, where to? Huge contractual payoffs could result in broken agreements by NBC, as well. If Conan does not host The Tonight Show, reports say he is entitled to $45 million.

But you don’t take a guy like Leno who is in the twilight of his career and offer him a new, lucrative deal. It’s the same reason that the best sports teams don’t bring in and sign for top dollar  a once-marquee player in the last season of his career. It’s a lot of investment for a short period of return. And in the end, you’re left with nothing.

The other thing is that The Jay Leno Show could be so much more. It’s not different enough from his old show in any attractive ways, and conversely is different enough in many unattractive ones: the glitzy, oversized, sterile set and the yawny “monologue, bit, guest” format. Leno’s show could have been a small studio with engaging interviews, less fluff, and some opportunities, perhaps for new stand-up or sketch comedy talent to be showcased. Instead it feels like a diet Tonight Show for old folks. Though, no matter what, both these guys beat Lopez Tonight, since it’s pretty much the New Jersey Nets of late night.

Still, if NBC goes through with these shifts it will feel clumsy and forced on the screen. It will create awkwardness and bad blood between the talent and the execs. It’s a blatant smack in the face to all involved and will leave a bad taste in their mouths. It also happens to be inelegant.

The irony of this dustup is that the whole handover to Conan was well done. Unlike its rivals, NBC has taken a long, choreographed approach to succession of its flagship one-man shows. We knew Brian Williams was going to take over for Tom Brokaw for what seemed like decades before it happened, and it was a smooth, amicable, and successful transition. Williams is the man. And now he leads the ratings race.

Just like Williams’ ascension to the big desk, Conan’s move to L.A. was telegraphed years in advance with much fanfare and orchestration in the lead-up.

I suppose, unlike news though, comedy is tougher. In news, you can be involved in a variety of ways. Tom Brokaw still contributes to NBC News on a sort of freelance retiree’s schedule with specials and occasional commentary on elections and major world events. Comedy is a different bag. You’re either the guy with the mic, or you’re not.

What NBC didn’t think through at the time was that Jay would still be young enough and popular enough to do a few more years beyond 2009. He does well with older audiences, but Conan does better with younger ones. But those younger audiences will become the general audience if Conan stays on over the years.

There’s another angle to this. A substantial part of the rationale for the 10 p.m. primetime Leno experiment was not just to keep him at the network, but to see if a comedy/variety/talk show could hold its own in that timeslot, thus eliminating the much higher cost of producing five different hours of original programming instead.

Restoring Leno at his old slot but keeping Conan and Jimmy Fallon after, while still having to make five other shows, be they scripted or unscripted, is the worst of both worlds.

  1. Leno is too funny…for me to poop on!

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