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.