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NBC Confirms Leno Move, But Two Questions Remain: Whither Conan, and Will Leno's Late-Night Fans Return?
January 11, 2010  | By David Bianculli  | 2 comments


NBC confirmed Sunday that it's canceling the prime-time Jay Leno Show, and moving the former Tonight Show host back to his old 11:35 p.m. time slot. But one question is, will Conan O'Brien stay with The Tonight Show, and with NBC? And another question is, or ought to be: Will Leno have the same drawing power when he returns, or, as a prime-time flop, is he now damaged goods?...

O'Brien's options are to stay with the Tonight Show, and accept a later start, at 12:05 a.m. -- which, as Seth Meyers joked on Saturday Night Live this weekend, would mean that the Tonight Show technically would no longer be shown... tonight. Or to bolt.

If he bolts, Leno gets the Tonight Show at 11:35, again, in a manipulative victory that far outshines his moves to get the show in the first place back when he and David Letterman vied for it. If Conan stays, he gets undercut by Leno, again, by having Leno serving as his earlier talk-show lead-in. Again.


And if Conan bolts, does he go to Fox, and face the embarrassing but very real prospect of finishing third or fourth in the time slot, behind Leno, Letterman and ABC's Nightline? Or does he accept the huge financial penalty NBC would have to pay him for betraying him so openly, and just stop? Let Leno have the bone he's chased so tenaciously, and see whether it's still as tasty.

Whether Leno gets the Tonight Show back, or just returns to late night with a new 30-minute show to precede O'Brien, the other question that needs to be asked is this: Has the overwhelming failure of The Jay Leno Show, creatively and in the ratings, tarnished the comic's audience draw? Or will his faithful fans, as one of our readers noted in the previous post, happily welcome Leno back to the late-night fold?

Either way, The Tonight Show is disrespected, again, and Conan O'Brien is mistreated, again.

USA Today quoted NBC Universal TV chef Jeff Gaspin as explaining the cancellation of Leno's prime-time show came in anticipation of mass defection by NBC affiliates, which "was going to be a PR nightmare." Using the future tense shows how tone-deaf the network bosses are to what they're doing, and what's happening, with every Leno move they make.

It's ALREADY a PR nightmare.

And no one's waking up any time soon -- except, perhaps, Conan O'Brien.




Curtis said:

When I was a kid my folks used to let me stay up on Friday nights to watch the Tonight show. I was seven or eight at the time and they saw no harm in the humor. I clearly remember the man-on-the-street interviews, Steve Allen's wacky comedy bits, the differences between Steve and Jack Paar when the change came. Steve was a little goofy, Jack more serious but funny in a different way.

Some folks complain about Conan O'Brien's humour but I find him a lot like Steve Allen. Letterman's humour was goofy, too when he first started after the Tonight Show. Wear a suit covered with Alka Seltzer tabs and drop into a tank of water? Now that's comedy! And in almost thirty years as a talk show host he has grown into a seriously good interviewer and most often a self-deprecating wit. Given time Conan could do the same thing but NBC has decided they won't give him that time.

At 57 years old I should be in his demographic but I've always felt the word for Jay Leno's hosting abilities was smarmy. Best when doing the monologue but a horrible interview.

For a while here in Madison, WI the local CBS affiliate ran Cheers at 10:35 and Letterman at 11:05. I'd watch Leno through the opening and if the first guest was a snoozer, switch to Letterman and stay through the comedy bits then switch to Conan because he has the best band (and the funniest) on television - period. Plus his work with Andy Richter was always funny and he had the best musical guests of any of the late night shows. Probably because they got to be in the same room as Max Weinberg.

Conan's move to California was a mistake in that he was always great with the audience and the band (and Andy) at arm's length. The huge Universal studio doesn't really fit a guy who used to write for the Simpsons but he's not going to get the chance to grow into that either. I'm going to miss what Conan's Tonight Show could have become but wherever he lands, I will most likely be there.

[Curtis -- What a marvelously written and reasoned reaction... and not just because I agree with every word of it. -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 11, 2010 11:37 AM

jesse said:

As a longtime Letterman fan I have to say I'm enjoying this a great deal. NBC gave Dave the shaft way back when so they're getting their just due. What I'm most interested in is seeing if Leno's fans return after their date with Letterman. Leno is obviously a better pitchman than Dave, but does not compare in terms of creativity or spontaneity. Will fans return to the comfort of Jay or stick with Letterman? We'll have to wait and see.
Mr. Bianculli, love this site, thanks.
[And love your thoughts. Thanks to you, too! -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 11, 2010 12:13 PM

ken kahn said:

I haven't seen mention of another option anywhere yet, but if I were Jay Leno I would seriously think of getting the heck (or some word a *lot* stronger) away from the crazies at NBC and move to FOX like he was thinking of before this nonsense started. Let Conan keep his tonight show. I watch Dave and Craig anyway so I couldn't care less what NBC does.

[Nice idea, but NBC and Leno are joined at the hip. Or the colostomy bag. (Did I just go too far? Quite likely. If so, I apologize in advance.) -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 11, 2010 12:35 PM

Neil said:

NBC is (and has for years been) damaged goods. The bozo who runs NBC-Universal has wanted it to be like the rest of his stable of cable narrowcast channels, and it looks as if he's succeeded. Leno, by buying into Zucker's myopic vision, has become damaged goods himself and, unless Letterman self-destructs, won't again achieve the ratings dominance he used to have before this game of musical chairs started last spring. It's a shame, but methinks he brought this on himself.

The only player with a chance to salvage his reputation and market value is Conan. But in order to do this, he has to take the money and run. Accept the buy-out from NBC, give up the Tonight Show, extricate himself from the whole sordid mess, and cut a deal with Fox.

At Fox, he could get the jump on Jay (and Dave) with an 11 pm start, and once freed from the tyranny of little minds over at NBC, could develop a new program into a sharper, more topical blend of his old Late Night show and a Daily Show kind of production. He'd have to give up some of the silliness that inhabits his current persona and build a little bit more gravitas, but done right, he could develop the show into a faster-paced, current events-focused entertainment vehicle, and turn himself into a next-generation Johnny Carson.

He just can't do it at NBC.

Dave Letterman learned the lesson 18 years ago that the Tonight Show "dream" can be an anchor tied to the leg. Once Conan cuts that anchor loose, he might actually develop into quite the swimmer.

[Okay, that's it. It's obvious I should be reading this site, and you guys should be writing it. But I'm grateful we're all in it together. Great thoughts, Neil! -- David B.]


Comment posted on January 11, 2010 1:38 PM

Rich said:

Why doesn't Obama just bail NBC out? C'mon, G.E. & NBC's News division is already 'in bed' with Obama's Admin. (even SNL has joked about it). Why bother taking responsibility, admitting 'bad choices', and firing Top Execs- Just keep your head in the sand like you've been doing all 2009! (Great way to start 2010.) And AGAIN, The only one who appears to have 'nothing to lose' and is protected is Jimmy Fallon (Former SNL Alum)- who sucks more than Leno, Conan, Letterman, Ferguson, Kimmel, Daly, and Stewart.

ADMIT Defeat NBC! CLEAN Your Slate! Start Over! This is a classic case of "Narcissism." NBC was riding high for so long that I presumed they thought they'd always be good no matter what they did (SNL has this same attitude!). I think whoever is in control would rather the network burn to the ground, than go back to basics.

It's a new media age, new demos, Conan is not your problem! it's your 10 O'Clock lead-in, stupid! Put a show like "Dexter", "Monk", "Mad Men" or a dark drama/comedy like "Dead Like Me" at 10 and watch the viewers return! slowly but surely.

Leno = Damaged. If you keep him at 11:30-12:00 make his show more like Jon Stewart - simply cultural or news jokes- Hell, get Dennis Miller or Kevin Smith to HELP you!- Conan at 11:30 - DUMP Fallon! give the cast of "Attack of the Show" on G4TV to re-invent 12:30!

I've been watching this show since 2007! And it only gets more inventive, fresh, hungry, and informative- THIS is the New Audience Demo NBC. Use them or Lose them!

NBC has gotten lazy, in denial, and forgot how to be 'hungry' for new stuff. Letterman sucks and he's beating NBC?. At this point NBC should just hire Howard Stern...they've made every other mistake.

[Rich -- I love hearing the 'younger generation' viewpoint, but it could do with a few less 'sucks.' There are other ways of making the same point, though I let it ride this time to reflect your passion. -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 11, 2010 2:33 PM

Kevan Patrick said:

I don't think Leno will be tarnished at all by his failed 10pm show, and after an initially slow start, his return to 11:30 will reach his previous audience levels.

The impression I get from the people I talk to and the articles I read is that most recognize the failures of "The Jay Leno Show" as NBC's and not the host's. A talk show just doesn't work at 10pm because as Jaime Weinman points out on his "TV Guidance" blog, "...in prime time, you have to care how the episode ends."

It also doesn't feel as though much time has passed since this whole talk show changing of the guard took place. If fate has Leno re-inherit the "The Tonight Show" in full, name and all, the last 6 months or so could be written off as an "extended hiatus." Ugly, but true in my opinion.

If you ask me, were it not for the pay difference and the esteem that comes with carrying the "Tonight Show" moniker, folks would recognize that Conan O'Brien actually works better in late-night, and that is why he struggles against Letterman at 11:30.

Seniors and middle-agers who went to bed with Jay Leno's harmless, middle-of-the-road shtick every night moved to Dave's "Late Show," because while he's more acerbic, Dave speaks to that generation. Conan's audience is younger, hipper, and stays up later. His competition isn't Dave Letterman, it's Adult Swim and Comedy Central.

The best solution (of only bad solutions) is for NBC to restore the previous order and do their damnedest to frame this as something other than a demotion for Conan. This means, among other things, retaining his "Tonight Show" size salary and promoting Conan as an equally important asset to the network and not just lumping his promos with Leno's as an also-ran.

Of course, no one should expect anything resembling tact from the Peacock's P.R. department. Even in their recent announcement, they refused to admit that "The Jay Leno Show" was a stinker. They're only pulling it because of the whiny affiliates, TV Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin said in not so many words.

For what it's worth, I'm not a professional TV critic, but I was taught by the best (shameless brown-nosing). See you Saturday at Borders, Professor!

(You've learned well, Grasshopper. Nice job. And identify yourself at the book signing, because those things induce near-total amnesia in me. I recognize no one. -- David (Prof.) B.]

Comment posted on January 11, 2010 3:12 PM

Stewart Wallace said:

If Conan bolts to Fox, might they put him on at 11 p.m. ET, getting a head start on the other networks?

[Might? For my money, that's a WOULD. Good point. -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 11, 2010 3:48 PM

Lesley2010 said:

You're buying into the "damaged goods" spin hook, line and sinker. Where do you think it came from? Several sources have suggested Letterman's people are behind this smear campaign.

The fact that The Jay Leno Show failed is not soley Leno's fault. What was he supposed to do within the constraints of prime time while keeping the FCC happy? And to make matters worse, both CBS and ABC prohibited their stars from appearing on Leno's show.

Leno is a decent, honorable man who happens to be a great comedian. Having him return to late night and more importantly compete head-to-head with Letterman has the CBS suits squirming.

"Damaged goods" is the latest fabrication floating around on every site that has covered this story. The spinmeisters are having a field day trying to trash Leno in an effort to keep the unfunny, ratings disaster Conan O'Brien on The Tonight Show.

Leno has already proven he's the King of Late Night. If anyone deserves to be referred to as "damaged goods" it's Conan O'Brien. His ratings have been in the toilet ever since he took over The Tonight Show.

The only thing Leno is guilty of is being the consummate company man and agreeing to give up his place as host of The Tonight Show. A bad career move yes, but Leno's professional reputation as a performer remains intact.

[Total agreement, Conan is damaged goods at this point. But the question about whether Leno is also damaged isn't a theory I'm "buying into" or repeating. It's my own question, whether or not it will prove prescient. For the record, Diane Werts and I, and other TV critics on this site and elsewhere, didn't "buy into" the idea that Jay Leno in prime time was a bad idea. We just saw the naked emperor, and pointed out that his tailor was Jeff Zucker. -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 11, 2010 5:02 PM

Sally W. said:

I do think it's funny (in every sense of the word) that Conan's become much sharper and funnier once he made the whole time slot debacle and NBC's madness the target of his monologue. It's not going to be easy to decide what's next for him.

But... I almost wonder if NBC did this to Conan and Jay just to reinvigorate their Slam-the-Network humor.

(by the way - great seeing you at the Barnes and Noble Lincoln Center; I loved those clips of the Smothers Brothers series. I'm beginning to wonder if such reruns could fill in nicely for the 10pm-11pm slot for NBC, if they could dare to be that crazy).

[Dear Sally: It was so nice to meet you in person. And the Barnes & Noble folks and setup were terrific, as was the turnout. Some long-dormant old friends popped up (Fred Rothenberg! Andy Wickstrom! Len Feiner! Allen Hill! Marisa Guthrie! Terry Wrong! Harry Forbes! Annette! Cubby!) , and, just as important for a book signing, lots of strangers. My unexpected favorite: Pat Paulsen's son, Monty, who was delightful! How cool is that? -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 12, 2010 12:25 AM
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