Chin Up at NBC: Leno Pushes O’Brien Deeper into Late Night
With the exception of an award-winning Thursday lineup that still doesn’t garner big ratings, NBC cannot seem to get anything right these days. But the current imbroglio involving “The Jay Leno Show” and “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien,” culminating in Sunday’s announcement that Leno will move back to late night and push O’Brien back 30 minutes, is one of the landmark blunders in television history. If Bill Carter, author of “The Late Shift,” doesn’t have a book proposal in by now, something is terribly wrong.
The biggest issue here is NBC’s paralyzing love/fear relationship with Jay Leno. In 2004, Conan O’Brien negotiated a new contract that had him inheriting “Tonight” in 2009. At that point, NBC was doing well in the ratings, Leno had been hosting “Tonight” successfully for 12 years, and it made sense for the network to establish a formal line of succession. But as 2009 neared, media speculation reached a fever pitch over Leno’s post-”Tonight” plans. There was talk of Leno making a deal directly with Sony for a syndicated program that could run on Fox stations or be sold to ABC, and suddenly NBC started quite visibly cowering over the prospect of competing against a monster of its own creation.
Former NBC Entertainment co-chair Ben Silverman cut a quick-and-dirty deal that ceded Leno 9 p.m. CST, Monday through Friday. This looked like a solid business idea but a cheesy, chintzy, low-balling programming concept in which the highest cost of production was Leno’s salary. This put an end to most fears of Leno jumping to another network, but it undercut O’Brien before he could even get rolling with his “Tonight” gig. It was a supreme vote of no-confidence for O’Brien.
With five fewer hours available for scripted dramas at NBC, the protests became louder from content providers such as former “ER” executive producer John Wells, whose critically lauded cop drama “Southland” had a limited run on NBC in Spring 2009, then was abruptly canceled before its second season could begin last fall (it has now landed at TNT). Wells told the Hollywood Reporter: “I’m disappointed that NBC no longer has the time periods available to support the kind of critically acclaimed series that was for so many years, a hallmark of their success.”
So “The Jay Leno Show” bowed on NBC with 17.7 million viewers for the first episode, featuring Kanye West just after his “Im’a let you finish” debacle at the MTV Video Music Awards, but the numbers fell fast soon afterward, hovering around 6 million since its second week. Furthermore, NBC’s pro-Leno shenanigans resulted in a lack of confidence in O’Brien’s “Tonight” among viewers. He started losing regularly to “The Late Show with David Letterman,” and local affiliates started grumbling about the low lead-ins that local news was receiving from Leno. Industry observers started seeing blood in the water.
Then, in a classless move on Leno’s part, the host told Broadcasting & Cable magazine “Would I have preferred to stay at 11:30? Yeah, sure.” This Machiavellian move was basically throwing down the gauntlet, and NBC, in its intractable spinal droop, began searching for a new way to capitulate to Leno, effectively cutting O’Brien off at the knees.
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