Players, Clowns, and Idiots: How Jay Leno killed Prime Time, Local News, and The Tonight Show in the Span of a Year
This whole situation with Jay Leno taking back his 11:30pm time slot on NBC is beyond infuriating. More importantly, it exemplifies how the network that thoroughly dominated the 1990s so quickly plummeted to dead last and can’t get out of the hole.
Several years ago, Leno was asked to step down as host of The Tonight Show and hand over the reins to Conan O’Brien, much like Johnny Carson did for Jay himself. Okay, correction – like Johnny had wanted to do for Dave Letterman, but NBC and Jay’s agent decided to step in and – you know what? Just watch The Late Shift. I’d suggest you read the book on which it’s based, but I haven’t myself and don’t know of anyone who has.
Fast forward to the last few years. Leno’s about to step down and replaced with Conan O’Brien, a host whose personality and writing room attract a demographic that buys things and therefore will attract real advertisers. Leno decided he wouldn’t go quiet (or with dignity) into that dark night, and so he starts negotiating with other networks to get his own 11:30pm slot in opposition to “The Tonight Show.”
NBC, paranoid that this will do real damage to their flagship late night program and make Conan seem like a pretender to the crown even though they didn’t want the audience that would have followed Leno to another network, decided to propose an idea to him that had been floated in private board room meetings and lunches for years: stick around and we’ll give you a 10:00pm time slot as a lead-in to the local news and “The Tonight Show.” The line of reasoning was that this will be a way to slowly transition to a new era of “The Tonight Show,” while keeping Leno and his dwindling unwanted audience appeased. Besides, it’s cheap programming!
Unfortunately, there are two glaring problems with this theory, which were apparent to everyone except the folks at the network (the same ones who brought the network to dead last in the ratings).
Firstly, let’s say that “The Jay Leno Show” is a ratings success. No big, right? Except the threshold for talk after an hour of Leno and a half-hour of news is very low, meaning that even if Leno succeeds and maintains his audience (which I cannot stress enough NBC didn’t want anymore), ultimately “The Tonight Show” suffers. And that’s just the viewers that are still watching real-time. If you take DVR time-shifting into account – which has killed the 10:oopm one hour drama – you can see how success at 10:00pm can spell certain doom for 11:35pm.
If Leno’s show isn’t a success – or even just underperforms – then that means affiliates across the country get no strong lead-in for their local news. That spells doom not just for them, but for The Tonight Show as well. If nobody’s watching the network, that means nobody’s watching their news. If nobody’s watching their news, then nobody’s watching their late night. After all, programming isn’t the tentpole of a network. It’s the foundation of their house. Meaning that you can’t just stick up one or two strong programs and keep a roof over your head, you have to have a strong enough base and supports throughout the week in order to maintain structure and balance and keep everything from collapsing.
So now, here we are in January 2010. “The Jay Leno Show” has been a spectacular failure. Our local newscast – affiliate WNYT in Albany, New York – was still in first place this time last year despite abysmal prime time ratings for the Peacock’s wretched programming. It’s dropped to dead last as a direct result of the turd Leno laid at 10:00pm. Local pundits love to taut the removal of lead anchor Lydia Kulbida as the reason, but that argument doesn’t hold up against the fact that other NBC affiliates across the nation have found themselves in the same predicament. If you put five people in a windowless room for an hour with another person who has the flu and all five end up developing symptoms after a week, you don’t attribute four cases to airborne exposure and one to not wearing a scarf outside.
So NBC decides that they’re going to cancel Leno’s 10:00pm show because it’s doing so horribly. Also, though, they’re going to remove Conan O’Brien as host of “The Tonight Show” due to a significant drop-off in ratings, even though everyone knows it would perform much better if it weren’t for the Leno debacle and no lead-in to speak of.
Wait, though, because it gets better! Because their solution to both problems is to take the guy whose audience on “The Tonight Show” were a wholly undesirable valley of lepers that stopped watching him even when he was moved into primetime and put him BACK at 11:30pm. NBC’s prime time ratings are still in the toilet, and the only options for a lead-in to local news and late night this far into the season are shows that would absolutely not be picked up for mid-season replacement under any circumstances…well, unless there was an implosion at 10:00pm.
Meanwhile, Conan O’Brien – the guy that still did fairly well despite everything working against him and has an audience that actually buys things and advertisers go bonkers over- is (unofficially) out of here, and will be at another network at 11:30pm to chip away at whatever few stragglers there might be left for “The Tonight Show.”
So what does the future hold? NBC will continue to fall until its parent company decides in a year’s time to shut the network down and portray it as a “bold and daring move” to embrace the new era of cable television, DVR, and on-demand services like Hulu.
All that will be left are the cockroaches, including Leno, who will use the decision to recycle his old joke about NBC standing for “Never Believe your Contract.” Too bad there’ll only be a handful of people left watching at that point, and they won’t be able to hear it over the sound of Johnny Carson violently rolling and thrashing in his grave.