Thursday, January 14, 2010

Gotta say something about Leno v. Conan

In short, NBC got caught with its pants down.

Sticking Jay Leno in the 10pm timeslot every weeknight was a ridiculous proposition from the start. Ridiculous. And the results were as any sane observer might have expected...although the heinous reviews were a little more surprising. Leno is a late-night entity, plain and simple. Although I have to say, slotting the 10pm Jay Leno Show for a one-night-a-week showcase might have eased the pain a little, and it might have actually worked, ratings- and money-wise. Leno at 10pm on Thursday nights following The Office and 30 Rock, capping the network's biggest night of comedy, while filling 10pm with the standard "gripping dramas" on the other four nights...that is an idea more in line with what NBC intended as its "innovative strategy." But eliminate 10pm dramas altogether with a limp variety show? No choices, no options...this is the one face of 10pm on NBC? W...T...F...?!?!?!

The sad part of this story is not the failed experiment, since it failed before it began. The sad part of the story is not that Jay Leno, who went along with the plan with full knowledge of the potential pitfalls, lost out. The truly sad part is that he didn't; Conan O'Brien did. Obviously, Leno had a deal with NBC that, if 10pm didn't work out, he was guaranteed to return to the 11:35 slot. They didn't bother to let Conan know....just like they didn't bother to let Dave Letterman know in 1993 that they sealed a deal for Leno to take over The Tonight Show before signing off with Johnny Carson or fully giving Letterman a fair shake. This, apparently, is the NBC way. It's Leno or Bust over there...and even if it ends up a complete "Bust," it's still Leno.

Conan did what he felt he needed to do: step into the spotlight and take a stand. He will not allow his Tonight Show to be moved to 12:05 (when, of course, it wouldn't even be The Tonight Show anymore, but The Tomorrow Show), and he wouldn't follow Jay Leno. Good for him. But now his fate is sealed...and that fate, it seems, is tons of cash and no show. Goodbye, Conan...Hello again, Jay.

If NBC was smart, they would recognize that once they've screwed the pooch this badly, this publicly, they might as well go one step further and offer Conan his 12:35 slot back, cutting Jimmy Fallon loose...since even though the guy is hilarious and likable as hell, his show is a mild disaster. And who knows, maybe they did that -- they are, after all, already running around naked, pretending they still have dignity. But Conan would never take that deal, though...that would mean throwing Fallon under the bus, but more pertinently, it would mean relinquishing to NBC's pathetic demands, which would be the worst possible decision under the circumstances. Leave NBC hanging...leave them flailing...make them pay or play. Good enough.

I usually review movies here, but I'll take a brief respite to review late-night TV. Jay Leno is a bland, uninteresting TV host whose late-night show stumbled into popularity and managed to keep the ship floating because the guy was boring enough not to get in his own way. It worked at 11:35, and was exposed as disastrous at 10:00. Conan O'Brien was far more edgy and interesting as a comedy writer, but his persona was a niche success that worked better at 12:35. As a result, a slightly watered-down Conan at 11:35 didn't work as well, even if it was way fresher and more entertaining than Jay at 10...or Jay at 11:35, for that matter. But this situation by definition completely ignores the shows on their merits. It is about business. It is, very specifically, about avoiding a complete implosion of NBC as a 10pm entity, and protecting the seniority of megalomaniacs. Jay Leno was brought into the NBC fray by a group of crazy megalomaniacs, and somewhere along the line he became one himself. And in any war between late-night hosts, he is going to win, at least on the business end.

So where are we now? Well...Conan is going to emerge from this situation an extremely rich late-night host without a show or a network and Jay Leno will return to The Tonight Show having bastardized the legendary enterprise even more than he already had. And because of the very public manner in which this situation blew up, Leno's Tonight Show will likely restore the show's high ratings, and NBC will laugh all the way to the whorehouse.

This business.....this business.....

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