The NBC charlie-foxtrot

In the wake of Conan O'Brien's sad goodbye last night from NBC's airwaves as host of "The Tonight Show," let's take a moment to review the huge, and - we'll admit it - hugely amusing, mess NBC executives created these last few weeks. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of television could see that the clumsy handling and piss-poor strategizing of last summer's Jay Leno/Conan O'Brien shuffling would end badly. "The Tonight Show" is a cash cow and keeping it humming is of paramount importance to the network. Yet the only people who perhaps didn't know this whole plan was a disaster waiting to happen were the ones smugly sitting in NBC's executive offices in Burbank patting each other on the back for a job well done.

Where did it all go wrong?

1. Giving Jay Leno an end date. Several years ago, NBC was so worried about losing Conan O'Brien to a rival network that they promised Conan the "Tonight Show" desk and told Jay he'd have to retire to make way. At the time, it made sense in a weird sort of way. 2009 seemed so far into the future. The network had been badly burned by the fumbled transition from Johnny Carson to Jay Leno (interested parties should read Bill Carter's book The Late Shift) and clearly were trying to avoid a similar skirmish in installing the next host. But five years in television is an eternity. Anything can happen. Audiences change. Stars rise. Networks stumble. NBC was clearly banking on Leno's popularity fading and O'Brien's strengthening by the time 2009 rolled around. Neither happened and so NBC wound up having to kick out late-night's number one host and replace him with a well-liked, but niche host. The obvious lesson here: networks should ride the gravy train as long as possible. Can you imagine Fox giving the producers of "American Idol" an end date? Or CBS telling the "CSI" folks they have to pack it in to make room for a new show? It was a ridiculous move.

2. Keeping Jay Leno around. NBC made a bad decision back in 2004, then made it worse in 2009 by scrambling to find a place on their schedule for Jay Leno. You could practically smell the panic. Once they realized Leno was still number one, they crapped their collective pants. They couldn't let Leno go. But the guy isn't exactly the most versatile performer. He can host a talk show... and that's about it. So NBC gave him... another talk show. Which meant that NBC started running three hours of talk shows each night: Leno, O'Brien, and the poor forgotten stepchild Jimmy Fallon. If you ever watched Leno and O'Brien (and okay, Fallon) in the same night, you could quickly see the folly of this move: these shows are all essentially the same. Same punchlines about the same current events, the same wacky comedy bits, the same dull banter of celebrity interviews. If variety is the spice of life, NBC's schedule threw the spice rack right into the garbage.

3. Thinking audiences craved a talk show at 10pm, 9pm central. NBC made a big deal about how Jay would be fresh each and every night, especially during those long months when the other networks were airing dramas. Looks good on paper. Why watch a rerun of "The Mentalist" if you could see a new Jay Leno monologue? But audiences are creatures of habit. Sixty years of television viewing told us that talk shows come on after the local news, not before. NBC also seemed to misunderstand the purpose of those late-night shows. It's not completely about the talent of the host or the star power of the guests. It's about watching a show from your bed and falling asleep to its flickering blue glow. If you have any experience watching Jay Leno or Johnny Carson or David Letterman, chances are you were probably asleep midway through the first guest. It's a sleep aid, not appointment television. NBC made a big misstep in expecting audiences to show any interst in watching an entire talk show while still wide awake.

4. Proudly announcing that ratings didn't matter. Before everything crumbled, NBC was gloating in a way that suggested they had invented a new way of doing business. The new Jay Leno show, evocatively called "The Jay Leno Show," was developed with the full knowledge that Leno would not pull big numbers (so maybe they did sort of understand #3 above). Executives actually said this. Out loud. On the record. But since the show was so cheap to produce - in comparison to something like the late, great "ER" - they could still turn a nice little profit. Small ratings were acceptable. Unfortunately for NBC, one group of people who had a higher standard were local NBC stations around the country who rely on network lead-ins for their local evening news. NBC may have been okay with small audiences, but the Oklahoma Citys and Richmond, Virginias of the world - whose nightly news numbers were dropping like a rock - were sure as hell not okay with it. It was that local affiliate revolt that ultimately led to the cancellation of "The Jay Leno Show."

5. Refusing to give Conan a chance. Whether you like Conan's humor or not, you have to admit that NBC showed zero patience with him. Seven months in and they shut him down. We stipulate that his ratings were not good. But even the great Jay Leno had many many months to polish his show and develop a following. Back in the day, before his legendary post-hooker-arrest interview with Hugh Grant, Leno lost to David Letterman time and again. But Conan would get no such allowance to fine-tune his quirkiness and figure out what worked best. In fact, NBC gave Conan a big middle finger by sticking his predecessor 90 minutes before him. Why would old Jay Leno fans ever sample Conan if Jay Leno was, like, still on the air? Rather than directing "Tonight Show" fans to a single host, now those fans had their attention divided between the old host and the new host. What a mess. [By the way, we give some of the blame to Jay Leno. He loves to portray himself as a good-natured, likable guy, but he had to understand that he was undercutting Conan by airing 90 minutes before Conan.
Worse, he says now he knew "The Jay Leno Show" would fail. So why would be agree to do it? If we indulge our cynical side, the answer is easy: we believe Leno was hanging around NBC in the hopes that Conan would stumble, his show would suck, and NBC would give him "The Tonight Show" back. Dick move. ]

6. Sabotaging prime time. The collateral damage in all of this is the NBC prime time schedule. Now that "The Jay Leno Show" is history, NBC has five hours of prime-time real estate to fill. And they have nothing to put on the air, people. This is a network in freefall, whose only hits are NFL football, "The Biggest Loser," two critically-acclaimed but low-rated comedies ("The Office" and "30 Rock"), and the very creaky, very old "Law & Order" franchise. Years of mismanagement and penny-pinching (i.e. the collapse of "Heroes" or the lame retreads like "Knight Rider" and "Bionic Woman") have led to a creative and economic wasteland. Ironically enough, it's those dire straits that partially led to "The Jay Leno Show" experiment - NBC was losing so much money on bad shows that it figured it might as well try and change the game by airing a show too cheap to lose money on.

We would argue that Conan is the victim in all of this, but how horrible can the crime be if you walk away with a $35 million check? He's a funny guy. Pointy and odd where Leno is so smooth and fake.

We're very curious to see how Jay Leno fares when he goes back to "The Tonight Show" next month. Will audiences welcome him back? Or will there be some backlash? He's suffered some big PR hits these last few days. Indeed, this week he's shuffling off to do some image rehabbing on Oprah's couch, where he'll surely plead innocence and befuddled confusion.

The funny part, of course, is that the drama behind all of these show moves is far more entertaining than the shows themselves. As more than one critic has noted, if everyone who's so fixated (us included) on the Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien machinations actually watched their shows, none of this probably would have happened.


"I'm not missing Happy Pony."

Despite its heavy rotation, this AT&T spot makes us laugh every time. A clever idea perfect in its execution. It's a funny riff on hard-boiled cop-dramas Mexican standoffs ("Drop 'em. Both of you."). But it's also a timely commentary on the way DVRs have changed our household interactions - who hasn't had an argument about a show conflict? - in a way that no one could have imagined just five years ago.

Plus there's all of the little details. The fearful look on mom's face as she dares to pull her remote on dad. The assertive way Billy stands up into the frame to get the drop on mom and dad - mom may be scared, but he's not. The way grandma dismisses the whole thing with a disgusted wave of her hand; DVRs are not a part of her generation - she can't possibly understand the dire, urgent showdown she's stumbled onto. The deadpan money line "And I'm not missing Happy Pony" delivered in a slow tracking shot that would be right at home in a cheesy 80s action movie. And for those with, ahem, DVRs, there's the fun of freeze-framing the shot of the TV as it scrolls through the details of the programs our family has presumably been arguing about: "Kung Fu Island," "Wheel of Fun," and - of course - "Happy Pony."


Please go away and don't ever come back

Wouldn't the sudden and irrevocable disappearance of the following characters make for a more enjoyable 2010? Not to mention 2011.

* The New York Yankees
* lazy post office clerks
* Dick Cheney, obviously
* Jay Leno
* Paula Abdul
* people who talk on their cell phone while in line at the supermarket checkout
* Jon and Kate Gosselin and whatever skanks they have dated or will date or might date
* Brett Favre
* Sarah Palin, obviously
* Paris Hilton, always on lists like these
* the producers and insufferable hosts of "TMZ," "Extra," "Entertainment Tonight," "The Insider," et al
* Raiders owner Al Davis
* people who inexplicably refuse to move their stalled car out of the traffic
* Penelope Cruz (search your feelings - you know it to be true)
* the people who keep renewing the CW's "One Tree Hill"
* Whoopi Goldberg


Knee-jerk review: “Avatar”

1. Too long, people. Too long.
2. We can’t say we loved it, but we also can’t say we didn’t like it. Reckon that means it falls somewhere in the middle. High expectations surely played a role.
3. One thing’s for sure – the Cheese Fry got a migraine watching it.
4. There’s probably no one better than writer-director James Cameron when it comes to ratcheting up the third-act tension and creating those suspenseful “oh crap!” moments in which it seems like there’s no possible way out for the characters. The last 20 minutes are the film’s best.
5. Some familiar Western archetypes here, cleverly transplanted to the science-fiction genre, whether it’s a hero-breaks-the-wild-bronco scene or the whole Native-American-genocide allegory (which is itself tied to the bullets-versus-longbows battle and the suggestion that superior technology does not always equal guaranteed victory).
6. You really do forget you’re watching giant blue aliens that live only in Weta’s computer servers. The whole movie is essentially one long visual effect. How can this not win a clutch of Oscars?
7. There’s some uncomfortable allusions to terrorism, but here the terrorists are the “good guy” humans. Creepiest moment involves ash falling gently after a 9/11-style surprise attack.
8. Much has been made about lead actor Sam Worthington. We’re not all that impressed, truth be told.
9. It’s by far one of the most imaginative and visually arresting science fiction films. Cameron and his team clearly spent a lot of time designing the indigenous plants and animals of planet Pandora. It’s got the complex level of detail you might expect from Star Wars or Star Trek, but not a one-off title that isn’t part of some larger, pre-established franchise title.
10. “My job is to keep you safe. I will not succeed.”
11. On one hand, we appreciate the environmental, we-are-one-with-the-planet message. On the other hand, it’s all perhaps a bit too sticky sentimental and self-important.
12. No, we didn’t see it in 3D. Or in Imax. We must be old-school traditionalists that way.
13. For the record, the best James Cameron films remains Aliens.

The good and the bad of "The Howard Stern Show"

What we like:
* J.D.
* Eric the Midget’s indignant phone calls
* Fred’s sound effects
* Mr. Skin's visits
* “Stump the Booey”
* “Win Fred’s Money”
* Howard yelling at Scott the Engineer
* parody songs about Robin
* “The Wrap Up Show”
* Artie’s Laughing Man character
* the genius of Sourshoes
* Medicated Pete
* Ralph calling in
* the lack of FCC-mandated content rules
* Jeff the Drunk
* Howard hanging up on boring, stupid callers

What we don’t like:
* the mean-spirited “Jack and Rod Show” pranks
* Robin’s insufferable snobbery and know-it-all attitude
* stripper and/or porn star interviews
* the unending drama surrounding Artie’s mental health and addiction struggles
* the “Benji Vortex”
* Ronnie the Limo Driver
* any sort of beauty pageant - interns, strippers, or otherwise
* Scott DePace’s ridiculous right-wing statements
* Crazy Alice
* Steve Langford’s obsession with the legal problems of High Pitch Eric and Captain Jenks
* Maryann from Brooklyn
* appearances by washed-up musicians from Howard’s generation