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How NBC Defiled a Television Institution (and Destroyed the Possibility of a Stronger Late-Night Future Across the Board)

January 12, 2010

When Conan O’Brien and Jeff Zucker attended Harvard at the same time in the mid-eighties, Zucker was the president of the reputable Harvard Crimson newspaper, while O’Brien headed up the subversive humor magazine The Harvard Lampoon. As a joke, O’Brien once had his staff steal all the issues of the Crimson on the day before they were delivered. Years later, O’Brien would tell Business Week: “My first meeting with Jeff Zucker was in handcuffs, with a Cambridge police officer reading me my rights.”

These days, O’Brien probably feels like history’s repeating itself.

Last Night, Tonight Show host Conan O’Brien took the stage to an unusually huge burst of applause and whooping, the shouts and cheers of a crowd which supports him in the shadow of a forthcoming, threatening NBC shake-up. O’Brien tried to settle the din, warning that “if you keep this up, the monologue won’t start until 12:05 — and then where would we be?”

The usually unflappable O’Brien seemed rankled last night, and why shouldn’t he be? In the past week, the red-faced Jeff Zucker, president and CEO of NBC Universal, has had to face the fact that his massive gamble to put Jay Leno on at ten o’clock brought dismal failure, resulting in the Peacock Network recently announcing that The Jay Leno Show would be pulled from the prime time lineup — that and Leno would likely be restored in his old time slot (now O’Brien’s rightful throne).

We’ve been over this, partially, before; a brief summary of events up until now sees Conan taking over Tonight from Leno, Leno deciding he doesn’t want to leave, Leno threatening NBC with competition, NBC’s balking and Leno’s resurgence as NBC’s combination golden boy and show pony as NBC acts like their plan all along was to move late night television to ten o’clock at night.

Problem is that all that revolutionary television and awesome Leno-ness that was supposed to happen at ten o’clock didn’t, and the show turned out to be a train wreck that no one watched. That was a problem; earlier this summer, when Leno was playing hardball because suddenly he didn’t want to leave, NBC was so afraid he’d compete on another network that they not only ponied up the money to assuage him but created an all-new time slot for him which would pre-empt Tonight, effectively — let’s face it — screwing O’Brien.

So now it would seem that NBC’s plan is to hand O’Brien’s 11:3o slot back over to Leno, and “find a place” to keep O’Brien, which some feel means starting Tonight at 12:05 with O’Brien still having to follow Leno. No one knows yet what this would mean for Jimmy Fallon or, worse, Carson Daly. And it would seem if you’re looking for Poker After Dark, you might as well just get up early before work to watch it.

While there’s still no definite call on what’s going to happen, here’s what we know.

1.) Leno is out at ten o’clock. Official.

2.) Leno is taking his 11:30 slot back. Not official yet, but expected to be at any time.

3.) Zucker says he’s “committed” to keeping Leno, O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon.

So them’s the facts. But hey, you can get those from any two-bit “news organization.” You come here to find out what’s what, and here’s what’s what: Jay Leno is holding NBC hostage, Jeff Zucker is afraid to cut him loose, and because of that NBC is going to lose the entire future of its late-night programming as Leno’s audience slowly dies off.

That last part sounded harsh, but it’s actually true. It’s no secret that Leno’s audience largely consists of an older crowd. And if this crowd, which loves him so much, didn’t turn out to watch him at ten, then you know what? I’m going to make this assumption: those old people were only watching Leno because they fell asleep after the news. What other reason would there be for them not to watch an hour earlier, and easier on their old people schedules, if they adore Leno so much? The math doesn’t add up.

You’re also going to hear a lot about O’Brien’s ratings, and you’re going to hear that O’Brien’s ratings weren’t very strong, and that he wasn’t taking off at Tonight. But any television analyst (and I’m not even going to claim to be one) will tell you that the coveted 11:30 slot’s success largely and historically has been determined by its lead-in. O’Brien, honestly, was doing fine in his first couple of months. It’s no coincidence that his numbers began to drop off as Leno took over at ten o’clock, all but stopping NBC’s viewership cold at ten o’clock every night. Leno, to some extent, is directly responsible for some of O’Brien’s lack of ratings. Must be nice, then, that when he takes back over at 11:30, he won’t have himself to kill off the audience at ten just before he takes the stage every night. In a weird way, Leno is removing his greatest obstacle: himself.

Here’s another question: remember when you saw some hype for Conan O’Brien? Two weeks before he took over Tonight, in NBC promos. But Leno’s show has been on since September, and it’s still clearly getting all the marketing dollars. “Up next it’s The Biggest Loser, and then stay tuned for Jay Leno!” When was the last time you saw a spot for Tonight? Not since Jay arrived at ten o’clock. Zucker is paying good money to retain Leno, and he’ll be damned if he’s not going to promote the hell out of him. O’Brien can fend for himself.

Okay, okay. All these things we’ve mentioned so far are business decisions. Sure. I’m not on the board at NBC (though I’m available, NBC — call me), so I don’t have the right to criticize. It’s their company, after all. But what’s very clear is that by pandering to Leno and letting him rewrite the schedule whenever and wherever he wants, NBC is killing its late-night lineup.

Years ago, a plan was put into place. That plan was for Leno to leave Tonight in 2009 and allow O’Brien to take over, and install Jimmy Fallon in the fledgling role at Late Night. This plan was in place for a very, very long time, a decision one can only assume was signed off upon, reserarched and studied with a bigger picture in mind.

Now, of course, Leno clearly has free reign to do whatever he wants, and left in the scorched earth of his wake is a complete derailing of any plans NBC may have had for its late-night future. Leno was the old guard, O’Brien has been groomed for fifteen years beforehand, and Fallon (who is, by the way, doing quite well in his new home) is the up-and-comer. Now, of course, Leno — who may only have five years left in him — could potentially drive O’Brien (who is rumored to already be talking with FOX) away. Fallon won’t be ready for the The Tonight Show after Leno leaves, and NBC is stuck with no successor to Leno, who should already have been gone anyway. When Leno leaves, NBC scrambles to find someone of Tonight Show caliber as Fallon still marinates, and who’s that? Your guess is as good as mine.

How will this shake out? We’ll see. But it would seem to me that this entire ruckus for NBC hinges on the simple fact that Leno refuses to exit gracefully and just go away. Sure, Leno can act like he’s being jerked around all he wants, but he knows he’s steering the ship. He’s getting everything he wants. Perhaps it’s time Zucker look around and face facts — it’s just fine to let Jay Leno go; at this point he’s damaged so much of the goodwill he built up at Tonight and proven that he’s a network-killer that it would be fine cut that cord. NBC has learned what it what it was afraid of discovering — and found that Leno isn’t the ratings magnet they thought he was going to be, so he shouldn’t be a threat anymore. NBC should embrace O’Brien, the man they’ve been investing in for 20 years, stick to their guns, take the cards out of Leno’s hands and just show him the door.Only by hitting the reset button can NBC wash their hands of this mess.

Update (4:35 pm): In a smart, strong statement, Conan O’Brien has released a media statement refusing to take the 12:05 time slot and follow Jay Leno again. That statement, in its entirety, can be found here. Notice that O’Brien has the respect not to damage Jimmy Fallon and the Late Night franchise. And that’s why we’ll follow you anywhere, Conan.

5 Comments
  1. Joustinian permalink
    January 12, 2010 5:22 pm

    Incredible… Conan’s official statement is indeed “smart & strong”. The guy has so much class about it all. Truly incredible.

  2. January 13, 2010 12:47 am

    Yup.

  3. Jay St. Orts permalink
    January 13, 2010 1:26 am

    “Conan has a chance to destroy everybody,” [Jerry Seinfeld] said while on a press tour for his new show, “The Marriage Ref.” “I don’t think anyone’s done anything to Conan.”

    Believe The Sein.

  4. Christopher Porter permalink
    January 13, 2010 2:06 pm

    A quick view of how Conan and Leno proves the idiocy of this move. Conan is funny — laugh out loud, unexpected, funny — and Leno just kind of makes you release an uncomfortable chuckle, like a drunk uncle telling a racist joke at Christmas dinner. NBC is foolish to not follow the funny.

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