Is this the end of The Tonight Show?
What was NBC thinking?
I'm just an armchair TV executive, but I can't believe the nonsense NBC has put Conan through, and I hope he fights the good fight.
For those of you who missed it, Jay Leno has had a TV show on NBC for the last several months. It's in the slot previously known as 'prime time', now known as 'dead air'.
Here's what I don't get. Having seen a taping of Jay Leno's 'Tonight' in 1997, I can tell you that the man is funny. He was funnier in person, and a show that the audience had a great time at didn't translate into so much fun when we watched it later...something just never translated from Jay Leno into greater TV. (in the interest of full disclosure, you should know that at that taping I received a free T-shirt for dancing shirtless on stage. I also received passes for the world premiere of Speed 2: Cruise Control. Kind of a mixed bag on the freebeies.)
Personally, I think after the war between Letterman and Leno, NBC was too gun shy, and really wanted to play it safe. Too safe. As a result, the show became bland. But bland though it may have been, it was still a genuinely funny show. Letterman as always is smart, sharp, and really works a joke well. Jay Leno, once the dust settled, made a more approachable host, I think.
Looking back, I remember the first few shows of Conan's tenure at 'Late Night', taking over for Dave. They were rough, yes, but despite his inability to do a monologue, Conan was distinctly able to find outrageous humor. He had a slant, certainly. Spice, if you will. The same quality that ultimately made him a great showman and comedian. That being said, everyone recalls that there were days where Conan's job security was threadbare...days away from termination, potentially.
NBC, fearing a similar war in the event of Jay's retirement, created a deal over 5 years in advance, guaranteeing O'Brien the helm of the coveted Tonight Show. As I understood it, the deal was very profitable for O'Brien, with many job securities brought in. He had been in negotiations with other networks, and would have been swept away--with his audience--had NBC not locked him in.
Unfortunately, as time got near, Leno decided he didn't want to retire. And let's face it, the dude gets some respect for the job he accomplished at 'Tonight'. However, from there, NBC screwed it up.
Back to Andy the armchair executive: if I were running NBC, I would have given Jay a prime time variety hour. Instead, NBC gave him 5 prime time variety hours. Thus, instead of recreating Laugh In, or Jackie Gleason, or the Smothers Brothers, or Ed Sullivan...they created a boring, bland, despairingly void wasteland of a talk show. Rather than sharpen the show, it got dull, dull, dull. Now I do watch it from time to time, and I think some of his bits were good. But what I can't understand is how a competent, humorous TV show went the way of the dodo so quickly. After all, it's not like Jay Leno lost any of his staff. Or his space. NBC bought a new location for Conan, and he shipped his entire NY crew in to LA. Conan was able to make his show, in my opinion, funnier and with broader appeal. Why not Jay?
Meanwhile, the heavily promoted Jay Leno Show only succeeded in drawing away attention from Conan's hosting duties, as well as divert potential guests. NBC willingly helped Jay Leno steal Conan's thunder. So when Conan's show is "underperforming", one wonders whose fault that is. In any event, this perception that 'Tonight' has faltered is also a myth. Though it bled older views to Letterman, this was insignificant given a strong 18-49 demographic. The show needed, and needs, time to connect and build its audience. Just like Jay Leno's show did.
So by this point, NBC has already made a series of bad decisions. It probably shouldn't have given Conan the deal he had in the first place. It definitely shouldn't have put Jay on 5 days a week. Now, Jay Leno has "met network goals", or whatever bland language NBC is still using to save face over that debacle, and they've cooked up a new ham-fisted strategy for "saving late night": keep Leno on 5 days a week, just push him back to 11:35 EST (10:35 CST, here).
So the plan is to reward Jay Leno for failing by giving Conan even less of an opportunity to succeed. Either that, or this is a very public way to push Conan out and restore the Leno throne. Either possibility is a loser. Butting Conan back 30 minutes is just an insult. A very public one. The kind of insult that says, "FU viewers", and creates a malaise. It creates a taint.
And the worst part is, whether Jay Leno stays in a new 30 minute show or goes back to the Tonight Show, he's damaged goods, too.
The point is, that NBC isn't going to recover from this one so fast. They've dug a real hole for themselves. They've angered and emasculated two of their tentpole stars, neither of whom caused this fiasco (ok, maybe Leno contributed, but he's a nice guy, right?). That being said, Leno needs to take one on the chin (glad to use that pun), and retire. It's the only way for everyone to save face and move on. It's the only way to stop the limit the extent of the damage.
Earlier today, Conan O'Brien released a very emotional statement arguing for preserving the heritage and legacy of 'Tonight' (and his own ass), by not shoving it back a half hour, into, literally, the next day. He's right about that. He's also right of the wrongful damage inflicted on 'Late Night' by being pushed back to 1:05 a.m.
Eventually, I suspect, Conan will leave and/or sue NBC, and start a new show on Fox, which is salivating to get into late night.
Who will get the last laugh?
Probably not me.