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Leno Rumored to Return to 11:30: NBC's Latest Moronic Move
January 8, 2010  | By David Bianculli  | 1 comment

How many colossal, crucial mistakes can one network make before its executives (in NBC's case, chiefly Jeff Zucker) pay the price for their own hubris and mismanagement? My guess: With Comcast coming in to merge with NBC-Universal, and with this latest rumored Jay Leno move, not many more...

The rumor floating around, and circulated by such respected and connected reporters as Bill Carter of The New York Times, is that when Jay Leno returns after NBC's pre-emptive coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics, it won't be in his hour-long, five-nights-a-week prime-time slot. It'll be in a 30-minute weeknight show at 11:30 p.m. ET, shoving back Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show to midnight, Jimmy Fallon to 1 a.m., and Carson Daly to -- well, almost to the lead-in spot for the Today show.

The whole thing is a mess, and there are several significant ramifications -- some theoretical, others undeniable. But whatever happens, should this latest round of late-night domino-shuffling come to pass, NBC has no one to blame but itself. And the blame, long overdue, soon should come home to roost.


The first inconceivably dumb move by NBC was to announce, years in advance, that Jay Leno would step down from the Tonight Show and be succeeded by Conan O'Brien. Leno had a comfortable lead in the late-night wars, and no real desire to quit -- Johnny Carson, Leno's immediate Tonight Show predecessor, had lasted 30 years on the job.

NBC was after an orderly transition, something smoother than when Leno, rather than David Letterman, ended up inheriting Carson's throne. And had NBC stuck to its original intention, and just let O'Brien take over, the only risk -- a substantial one, even then -- would be whether O'Brien's humor would draw and hold enough viewers in the earlier, somewhat tamer 11:35 hour.

But NBC feared Leno's defection to another network, so they offered him a prime-time hour show, five nights a week. With that one short-sighted, high-risk move, NBC not only shot itself in the foot, but in the groin, and maybe even the head.

It's not hindsight to say that this was a horrible idea. Read what almost any TV critic wrote before The Jay Leno Show premiered, and you'll hear the same warnings: This move is stealing precious hours of prime time that should be devoted to 10 p.m. ET scripted dramas. It's weakening the momentum, and arguably the guest-roster availability, for The Tonight Show. And if it doesn't do well, the NBC affiliates, stuck with a weaker lead-in to their key late newscasts, will revolt.

All of which happened. NBC cancelled some quality dramas (Life), let others slip to competitors (Medium), and shared its best drama with a satellite network (DirecTV's first-look deal with Friday Night Lights). Meanwhile, by the end of the first week of The Jay Leno Show, it was obvious this was a dud of a show -- a dodo that wouldn't fly. The ratings kept slipping, and so did O'Brien's ratings in late night.


Before too long, CBS's Late Show with David Letterman had claimed a substantial lead over The Tonight Show, the reversal of many years of NBC supremacy. O'Brien claimed a younger demographic, but far fewer viewers. And as Leno kept plummeting, and after such a brutal November ratings sweep period, his days were numbered. The Olympics would save February for NBC, but there's no way Leno would remain in prime time through May, the next crucial ratings measurement period for local affiliates.

But rather than admit to its mistakes and let Leno go where he will, NBC again is more concerned about letting him go to a competitor than asking what costs will be associated with keeping him. Yes, a half-hour Leno show at 11:35 probably will outdraw O'Brien -- but maybe not by much, because the viewers who have defected to Letterman, by now, probably are comfortable enough to stay put.

But the real sin in this latest move is that NBC, by treating O'Brien's program as an also-ran, has urinated all over the grand six-decade history of the Tonight Show.


Steve Allen created it from nothing in the Fifties, building a freewheeling atmosphere of comedy, music and conversation. Jack Paar brought it into the Sixties with his own intelligence and wit. Johnny Carson perfected it, and ruled for 30 years. Then Jay Leno took it over, weakening the content but eventually maintaining the show's late-night dominance. And then, hampered by a Leno lead-in, came Conan, whose Tonight Show is that program, at this point, almost in name only.

But still, it's the Tonight Show at 11:30, where it's been since the Eisenhower administration. Until this year, if NBC really is foolish and ignorant enough to move it to midnight, shattering a TV tradition older than any of the executives making this bone-headed decision.

NBC is strangling The Tonight Show, and burying its own history and heritage. What could be worse?

I'll tell you, because this may be the next major misstep. NBC, rather than fill its 10 p.m. hour with quality programming, might continue its cost-cutting, guano-embracing methods by filling that hour with tacky reality series, ones it hopes will improve on the Leno numbers without costing much more.

And if NBC goes that route -- if Comcast buys into Zucker's misguided thinking about caring more about margins than programming -- it doesn't even deserve to be thought of as a network any more.

And Leno, if he likes, can enjoy his comfy new deck chair... on the NBC Titanic.




Colleen said:

Boy, do I feel smart after re-reading the analysis I wrote up in September!

This is not the NBC that I grew up watching. This network is terrified of further failure, is clinging to everything and everyone possible to stop the fall, and yet is just weighing itself down with the baggage. If Zucker would come to his senses, cut some strings, bruise some egos, and do what needs to be done, NBC might have a slim chance at redemption by the end of 2010. Seeing what's been going on there for the last few years just makes it very unlikely.

With Comcast's pending takeover, I'm with you - there will be far more concern about profits than programming. Which is why I'm happy to have options like my Rescue Me, Firefly, Doctor Who, Taxi, and Sports Night DVD box sets for when "there's nothing on".

Comment posted on January 8, 2010 11:06 AM

Mac said:

Nice writing, as usual, and you had lots to say on what seems like a plausible rumor.
Some of the argument FOR this move may be to have Conan go toe-to toe with Jimmy Kimmel,which is a compliment to Kimmel or at least an acknowledgment that demos could be driving the future and not total eyeballs. If this happens and proves success,let's hope CBS doesn't screw up by messing around with Letterman and Ferguson.
Technically, wasn't the original starting time for Tonight 11:15? I remember Ed McMahon and Skitch Henderson doing the first fifteen minutes live,after Carson balked at having to do an intro monologue that played in New York and few other places (like Philly, where I was watching, proving my Official Old Fart status since that was 45 years ago).

[You're right -- and not only was it an 11:15 start, but it kept going until 1 a.m. On his first show, Steve Allen joked that the studio from which they broadcast live was chosen because it "slept about 200." Or something like that... -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 8, 2010 11:20 AM

Marlark said:

I remember a time in the late 70s when NBC was gagging at the bottom of the heap. "Man from Atlantis," "Hello, Larry," "Supertrain" (Supertrain!!??!!). Then after the Silverman era it decided to go on a binge of quality that still seems to reverberate through today's programming: "Hill Street Blues," "St. Elsewhere." Is the fear of failure and loathing of audience intelligence such that corporate decision makers follow their bottom-line mentality out the window?

Comcast may have the largesse to invest in quality programming but will they? If not, make a note: "2010: The Year We Make Artifact" (of network TV).

[Good memory. The difference between the NBC of those days, which soon became the glory days of Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff, is that for every hit show that was junk, like The A Team, NBC made sure to subsidize such quality fare as Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. Today, it's just one Biggest Loser after another. In more ways than one... -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 8, 2010 11:54 AM

Rich said:

Who ever conceived this 'Deal' of the 10 PM Jay show should be AXED!, Whoever authorized it AXED, and now whoever dumps Conan to 'save face' with Jay's 'Older Audience' needs to be AXED! I don't know anyone who thought this was going to work.

The BEST solution:

* Give Jay a 1 hr show from 11:00 PM to Midnight.
* Give Conan room to breathe at 12:00 Midnight to 1.
* DUMP Jimmy Fallon!! for a test Pattern or give the gang at G4 TV's "Attack of the Show" or Chelsea Handler a show to simply Invent. Do Anything 'other than' a Conan-Jay clone.

DUMP Local News!- why? cause it's the only screw-up NBC hasn't tried. I'd be in favor of re-setting the old late 2008 line-up but Fallon
needs to go! If NBC snubs Conan and protects Fallon - I will never say a nice word about NBC again- Not like anyone's watching anyway. Kimmel is more amusing and risky than Fallon is at 12:05 anyway.

[I'm amused that you, as a member of the younger generation, even knows what a test pattern IS. You must have had a good teacher or three in TV History... -- David B... Prof. B, to you...]

Comment posted on January 8, 2010 1:08 PM

Carina said:

I tell all my 30-something friends that NBC ought to go back to broadcasting a test pattern since it's obvious they can't program a network.

We all called the Jay Leno 10pm failure in advance, but this bonehead move? I didn't see this coming. Maybe I was naive to think Jay Leno would go gently into that dark night...

This whole thing has left me with a horrible taste in my mouth.

Conan is so fantastic, and has been so patient, and this is his reward? Unconscionable.

[Wow. SO well said! -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 8, 2010 7:14 PM

Laura said:

Applause to you for that! Well-said, and it needs to be.

Comment posted on January 8, 2010 8:21 PM

Sally W. said:

A great post, David!

Personally, I find the whole situation rather depressing - that NBC allowed this whole debacle to unfold like this, when this was all foreseeable. Bad publicity might be better than no publicity, but it's still bad. I also think it's also terribly unfair to Conan O'Brien, that this overshadows his potential growth with the Tonight Show franchise.

While this is still a rumor phase, I do dread that NBC would dare to put bad reality shows to fill 5 hours of 10pm-11pm during a week, when this could be an opportunity to be smarter. A decent show like "Chuck" could have a real shot, and putting "Law and Order" at a more appropriate time slot again would be far more preferable.

If CBS can pull things off by being a little more conservative and stable (sure, they might have an older-skewing audience, but things aren't tumbling at CBS) and ABC can afford to be a little creative (they took a chance on "Lost," and it worked), NBC should try using a little intelligence in understanding and acknowledging consequences (not just going for lower expectations). Otherwise, I'd hate to think this is another nail to the coffin for the tradition of broadcast tv networks.

[Your points, and fears, are well taken. My suspicion is that the rumors ARE accurate, and that what NBC will do is slide its current 9 p.m. shows up into the 10 p.m. slot, to make room for more reality junk in the 8 and 9 hours. When you think WWND? -- as in What Would NBC Do? -- always go for the lowest, cheapest, dumbest alternative. -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 8, 2010 10:26 PM

Greg Kibitz said:

As a side rant (as all this NBC "Fun & Games" stuff has far more to do with commercial revenues than actual quality of show and/or show content):

Not even sure why network (translation: commerial/ad revenue driven) TV still exists. Since getting a dual tuner DVR like 7-8 years ago, I've barely even watched all the damn commercials, that pay their bills, except purely by accident and I, as best I can, give all my entertainment money to premium cable instead. And, if I could somehow get my Cable TV programming/channels a' al carte (and not have to buy all broadcast and basic cable just to be allowed to purchase my premium content), I am quite certain I would unsubscribe from 95%+ of all the ad driven content providers. And if all the content from Broadcast and Basic cable that I still really do like moved to a premium pay paradigm, I'd pay for that too (if I wasn't already forced to pay for it even with the ads). Unlike some, I am smart enough to watch what I already pay for on TV instead of for 99 cents a show on iTunes.

IMO, if I had to again live without a DVR, then none of "commercial laden TV" would be TVWW because no commercial advertisement is ever worth watching, especially in between what the real product should be, actual decent programming.

Oh and being a person that hates sports and excessive competetive activity and tribalism, all the commericalism that now pervades that genre, more than ever makes me avoid that as well. And only a idiot would waste their time watching commercials/banners/billboards driving 200+ mph around ovals but then again, they are the folks that voted for Bush/Cheney and McCain/Palin so it all makes lots of sense that.

FYI: I am thankful that most online video providers of commerical TV content permit audio muting during the commericals or I would avoid that 100% as well. And for the few that ovewride all muting, I go elsewhere and never ever again return.

Sorry, had that rant in me and had to get it out. I really hate "push" advertizing (esp. like the audio/video part that is stuffed down my throat when I am in On Demand Menus). And any way I can avoid as many ads as possible is the way I always try to travel. Thank you technology for my DVR and the mute button.

[If only for you, Greg, I promise our site, even if we pursue advertising this year, will never resort to pop-up ads or anything similarly aggressive... - David B.]

Comment posted on January 9, 2010 1:53 PM

Lesley2010 said:

Agreed, NBC has no one to blame but themselves for this latest donnybrook. Asking Leno in 2003 to surrender his position as Tonight Show host was mistake numero uno. Had the suits done their homework, they could have figured out that O'Brien's brand of humor had a very limited appeal and would never bring in the ratings Leno delivered.

The second mistake came when Leno's people dignified such an ill-thought proposition. Leno, being the loyal company man he is, initially decided to go with the flow. But NBC gave him 6 years to reconsider and that he did.

When Zucker, et al learned Leno might defect to Fox or ABC AND MORE IMPORTANTLY beat out Conan O'Brien in the ratings, they had to re-group to avert the disaster they created.

What I disagree with is the ludicrous suggestion that NBC should admit its mistakes and let Leno go. Why make another mistake? Conan O'Brien is the one who should be cut loose and NBC should have done that back in 2003.

If Leno takes back his rightful position as host of The Tonight Show, his fans will follow in droves. For those who defected to Letterman, ever heard the expression "picking the lesser of two evils?" Conan or Dave? I can't stand Letterman, but I'd pick him over Conan if that's all I had to watch.

If O'Brien refuses to read the writing on the wall i.e., no one can stand you or Andy Richter, and decides to stick it out at NBC, Leno should bid NBC adieu posthaste.

In this scenario, Leno would end up in first place again but on a different network. And in the end Leno will prevail beating the pants off both Conan and Dave. Leno's a survivor.

Comment posted on January 10, 2010 1:47 PM
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