Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On Jay and Conan, and This Awful Situation

The brilliant Mark Harris predicted the Leno mess months ago:

But these days, with its lineup zigzagging from football to low-end cheapo reality like The Biggest Loser to botched onetime hits like Heroes to media pets like 30 Rock, NBC’s brand is scattershot. The face of the network, by virtue of sheer omnipresence, is Jay Leno, who, at 59, is not any network’s demographic ideal. He may not be killing NBC, as TV Guide recently speculated, but it’s beginning to feel like he’s participating in an assisted suicide. One thing’s already clear: Remaking an entire prime-time lineup in his familiarly peevish image was a Hail Mary pass, not a long-term business strategy. And one suspects the network knows it. With Jeff Gaspin already working hard to repair NBC’s relationship with the creative community by signing deals with high-profile producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and J. J. Abrams, it’s hard to imagine that he and Zucker are not beginning, very quietly, to consider a Plan B. That could involve paying off Leno and canceling his show, cutting it back to three or four nights a week to give the grid a little more flexibility, or even returning Leno, “by popular demand,” to the Tonight Show. Start sweating, Conan; Leno recently told a trade reporter he’d take that deal if he were asked to—a seemingly offhand comment that sounds a lot like the beginning of a gigantic face-saving maneuver.
TMZ broke the news Thursday that NBC was considering a shakeup in their primetime and late night schedule, an earthquake that only rose as the days continued. It was another powerful coup for TMZ, the first time sticking its tentacles into business matters. Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, both middle-aged white men not usually the sort of target the gossip site goes after, were now the number one story.

It’s a real shame that it all had to end this way. The “failed experiment” of The Jay Leno Show was pilloried online, absolutely brutalized from the moment it was announced. Sure, it sucked for the creative community, but it was an interesting, bold move, and I supported Jay, Conan, and NBC. NBC said multiple times that they would honor the two-year commitment, wanting to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but it was the affiliates—some, like Boston, which was against it from the start—who revolted.

Although NBC liked The Jay Leno Show, they felt they had no choice but to pull the plug, that a reduced load—airing two or three times a week—was not enough. Obviously, they wanted to hang on to Jay and Conan, to everyone, so they came up with their half-hour deal. It was a panacea, the best way they could retain all their talent. It’s a mess, with not enough time for everyone, yet too many holes to fill.

What’s changed so much is the business climate; the shows weren’t given much time to settle in, to get comfortable, showing just how different television is today. The Jay Leno Show hadn’t even been on the air for six months before it was cancelled, and it was performing to expectations. Conan’s Tonight Show was doing ok, but it had only been on the air since June. Conan was up against Letterman, an institution in his own right, and still in the midst of an extortion scandal; Jay’s show was an experiment still in the testing stage. It’s well known that their predecessors had bumpy rides when they first began, all they needed was a little time, at least a year!

Sure, the audiences for each comedian were different—a lot of people who were used to Jay at 11:30 may not have appreciated Conan’s humor, since they rarely saw him when he was on after midnight, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t get used to a new face or a new slot. But even those who want to argue that online viewership should matter—Conan’s Tonight Show was the 13th most popular item on Hulu last year—it is an issue that is irrelevant for the affiliates, a group who rarely get the spotlight. Jay Leno’s show didn’t crack the Top 25. This isn’t surprising; while Jay beat Conan in total audience numbers, his biggest fans tended not to be the types of people who watch clips online: middle-aged parents, the loyalists, the people who’ve known Jay for years. Conan’s audience is naturally up later, college-aged and people who aren’t settled into decades-old habits, and will watch the same wacky stuff over and over again, flipping online for the clips they missed.

It’s hard to comment on Leno vs. Conan’s respective shows without getting into taste—and that’s another arena where no one ever wins. Both of them have made several shots at NBC’s expense, as well as riffing on the situation at hand. Alessandra Stanley has an astute analysis (though she does come down on Leno’s side; he is the more polished performer):
[Conan] is considered a younger, hipper comedian, but as it turns out, his “Tonight” show is not very different from Mr. Leno’s. On Thursday they both made the exact same joke about the freezing temperatures in China — so cold that little children can’t get to their factory jobs. (Mr. Leno told his version a bit better.)
(I've noticed repeat jokes among the late-night hosts, too; Jay always comes out on top.)

But truthfully, both men got screwed. While there are plenty of people who say Jay should retire (and should’ve retired years ago), should he really be forced out? His Tonight Show was regularly beating Letterman. Leno himself wants no hard feelings, and was always supportive of Conan. He just wants to do a show. And Conan has worked hard and is great at what he does; he shouldn’t be forced out (though that’s a dominant reading of the situation). Also, Conan upended his life for the Tonight Show; he is in charge of a whole crew of people and their families, and that they moved to accommodate the changes, too. It’s no small thing to a lot of people.

So while it’s not surprising that Conan made the decision he did:
People of Earth:

In the last few days, I've been getting a lot of sympathy calls, and I want to start by making it clear that no one should waste a second feeling sorry for me. For 17 years, I've been getting paid to do what I love most and, in a world with real problems, I've been absurdly lucky. That said, I've been suddenly put in a very public predicament and my bosses are demanding an immediate decision.

Six years ago, I signed a contract with NBC to take over The Tonight Show in June of 2009. Like a lot of us, I grew up watching Johnny Carson every night and the chance to one day sit in that chair has meant everything to me. I worked long and hard to get that opportunity, passed up far more lucrative offers, and since 2004 I have spent literally hundreds of hours thinking of ways to extend the franchise long into the future. It was my mistaken belief that, like my predecessor, I would have the benefit of some time and, just as important, some degree of ratings support from the prime-time schedule. Building a lasting audience at 11:30 is impossible without both.

But sadly, we were never given that chance. After only seven months, with my Tonight Show in its infancy, NBC has decided to react to their terrible difficulties in prime-time by making a change in their long-established late night schedule.

Last Thursday, NBC executives told me they intended to move the Tonight Show to 12:05 to accommodate the Jay Leno Show at 11:35. For 60 years the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn't the Tonight Show. Also, if I accept this move I will be knocking the Late Night show, which I inherited from David Letterman and passed on to Jimmy Fallon, out of its long-held time slot. That would hurt the other NBC franchise that I love, and it would be unfair to Jimmy.

So it has come to this: I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it. My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The Tonight Show. But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction. Some people will make the argument that with DVRs and the Internet a time slot doesn't matter. But with the Tonight Show, I believe nothing could matter more.

There has been speculation about my going to another network but, to set the record straight, I currently have no other offer and honestly have no idea what happens next. My hope is that NBC and I can resolve this quickly so that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of, for a company that values our work.

Have a great day and, for the record, I am truly sorry about my hair; it's always been that way.


It still leaves everyone else back to asking, now what? Is Jay Leno back to the Tonight Show? Will everything about his new show be completely forgotten? He had some good stuff in there (like the “Earn Your Plug” game). Whose studio will he use? How will Conan do on Fox, where he is most likely to land? Is the Tonight Show tarnished forever? Will Jay lose a lot of audience share or support? Will those rush-job dramas be ready by March? Will this season be another implosion all-around for television, like it was two years ago? Will the affiliates really be happy? For business buffs, how will this impact the Comcast deal? Is there nothing worth a wait?

Comcast’s pending takeover of NBC Universal is the dog sniffing around the hen. While Jeff Gaspin, Chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, has said that the pending Comcast takeover has had no effect on the decision, some outlets believe otherwise, citing the PR nightmare that rogue affiliates would cause as further proof of what a stinking egg NBC is. Gaspin, for his part, said that he wanted to wait until September, he wanted to see the numbers for a full television year, but the affiliates threatening to revolt forced his hand.

According to Deadline Hollywood Daily, a third of the affiliates (NBC has over 200) had talked about preempting The Jay Leno Show. I’m not sure what they would put on instead (would reruns really have given them a better boost? Seriously?), because their local news drop-offs were so bad, and advertising rates were plummeting faster than stomachs on a roller coaster. Yes, it is a bad time in media, but that's no longer an acceptable excuse, and clearly neither was waiting. It’s one of the few times that affiliates get to bully their bosses around, and so many, rightfully, place the blame on them.

Over the summer, Leno made his rounds to the affiliates, trying to soothe them that everything would be alright, that losing Law and Order wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. And yet, somehow, despite it being on all the other stations, it was. NBC tried mightily—God knows everyone saw Jay Leno’s face everywhere the past several months, something Jay was quick to joke about—but somehow, it felt too little, too late.

Further reading: Ratings info included here; More on NBC's "Midlife Crisis"

1 comment:

John said...

Great job on this article, MM! I particularly enjoyed your use of literary devices this time around.

I don't think networks understand that their interference tends to make bad situations even worse. Also, they don't seem to understand that some shows need time to establish both themselves and their audience. Dollhouse is a perfect example: Joss hands them a great show that has real progression and grows and changes with each episodes, but Fox insists that he write six pilot episodes and air them in order to convince everyone that "the status is indeed quo" (to paraphrase Dr. Horrible.)

ABC cancelled Clerks after airing only two episodes (that were out of sequence and relied on unaired episodes for call-back jokes.) Also, the first episode premiered directly against the opening game of the NBA finals.

I've never had a show I loved be cancelled by NBC, but I enjoy Conan's material and I think that this is a foolish way to alienate two great entertainers and their audiences. That whole "meeting expectations isn't enough" thing is just silly. If performing to expectations is not enough, then your expectations are unfairly and unrealistically low!

It seems that in order for networks to embrace a show these days, it must have a built-in audience so that it can be a hit before it hits the airwaves, it must be so modular that they can Party Shuffle the order of episodes, and it must be possible to cancel at any time. Jay's show had all of these characteristics, but it STILL wasn't enough! Go figure.