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Will Leno’s New Primetime Explosion Dazzle, Fizzle or Just Spit in the Face of the Late-Night Talkers?

September 11, 2009

Hey, listen. Didn’t know if you guys knew this or not, but Jay Leno is going to have a show at ten o’clock.

I know, right? I mean, how would we have ever received that information? NBC shouldn’t keep it such a secret. I’m really surprised that they’re not hyping it at all.

Of course, I kid. Everywhere you turn, a mugging Leno appears before your eyes. He’s even on the cover of Time this week. As you likely know by now, NBC has made the brazen decision to keep Leno after his Tonight Show contract expired by giving him ten o’clock’s primetime real estate, the first real foray of its kind in that slot. Which isn’t, per se, a terrible idea. But it’s the manner by which it came about that sticks in my craw.

By all practical accounts, the story goes like this: Leno signed on to do Tonight until 2009, whereupon it was agreed, several years ago in fact, that Conan O’Brien would take over the institution. O’Brien had earned it after rising to greatness following Letterman at Late Night. Leno was perfectly fine and happy with it. Everything was set. Good to go.

Then a funny thing happened. Just before the Tonight contract was up, Leno allegedly decided he wasn’t ready to go yet.

NBC’s response, appropriately and rightly, was “Well, too bad. You knew this was coming.” Leno wanted to keep Tonight, but legally couldn’t. So he began to play hardball with the Peacock, threatening to jump to another network and perform against the Tonight Show. This would have been rough for NBC, because whether you like him or not, Leno gets ratings. NBC brass had to defuse the bomb, but they couldn’t let him keep Tonight, because O’Brien was already in place. Their response, then, to keep him from switching networks, was an unexpected gift to keep him  happy: how about he just have a show before O’Brien? 

This was both an interesting and possibly smart move. It was also, it could be argued, incredibly cruel and backhanded. By interesting, I mean that putting Leno on at ten o’clock would change the primetime landscape in a major way, by putting a show normally relegated to after-the-news into a time slot normally populated by big network dramas like Law & Order

It could potentially be smart because Leno scores big with older audiences, audiences who no longer have to stay up until 11:30 to see the silver-haired yukster, and can both enjoy the non-caustic and vanilla comedy of the former Tonight host and still make it to bed at a reasonable hour. It’s actually a pretty good strategy, and it’s probably going to work.

It’s back-handed and cruel, however, because not only does it denigrate the long-standing institution of the Tonight Show, the house Johnny built, but it in essence retracts O’Brien’s promotion. If 10:00 is the new 11:30, then Conan’s still second fiddle to Leno, the Tonight Show means less, and it takes the wind out of Tonight’s sails. Not to mention the fact that it makes the increasingly solid and funny Jimmy Fallon into Carson Daly, and turns Carson Daly into late night poker. (I don’t know what that would make late night poker. A sham-wow commercial?)

Conan doesn’t deserve this, and it’s unfortunate that Leno’s whim is inevitably going to cost him ratings. What giant star isn’t going to want to be on television at 10:00, when more people will see him or her, than 11:30, when these days a whole lot of people are going to be switching off after Leno? Conan took a demographic Letterman established and built his own empire with it, and now that demographic is ready to graduate to Tonight with him. Fallon was ready to take on the next generation. But now, alas, it’s all about the old people. Leno’s bread and butter.

I’m not going to talk too terribly ill about Leno (he’s not particularly my cup of tea), but the whole situation seems sullied by the comic’s refusal to exit gracefully. He’s played NBC like a fiddle, and gotten everything he wanted — including a promotional campaign two hundred times greater than what Conan received when he took over at Tonight, which is a television stalwart. Hosting the Tonight Show is like being the President of Television. And Leno just installed himself dictator for life in a massive Hollywood coup. 

Look, the truth is that Leno’s going to be a hit. His fans are going to be over the moon about this new gig. It’s going to be really big. I’ll be incredibly surprised if it’s not. My problem is that if NBC wanted to move the Tonight Show to ten o’clock, which is basically what they’re doing, Conan still deserved the nod. Muscling in a show just like the one Conan used to follow in front of him again isn’t fair, and it seems like it’s all because Leno put NBC over the barrel. I’m not unhappy for Jay, because it means he’s a shrewd businessman, but it takes from Conan what he rightfully earned. Plus, if moving late night television to 10:00 proves to be a smart move, it’s only going to ever-so-slowly phase out the glorious cavalcade of great comedy that airs post-eleven o’clock now (you have to admit Colbert, Stewart, Ferguson, Conan, Fallon, even Kimmel are a murderer’s row of talent). And it’s all to make late night TV accessible for your grandma.

I hope she enjoys “Jaywalking” and misspelled ads five nights a week as she takes her tea. Because we’re all paying for it.

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