Press reports and even jokes on last night’s Jay Leno Show point to the likelihood that NBC’s experiment with moving Leno from late night to prime time is over, and that the instigator of the changes, Conan O’Brien, will have to accept a diminished role as a consequence of his successful campaign to force Leno out of his 11:30 slot.
The reports are that the Jay Leno Show will stop producing new episodes on February 1 or possibly February 12 when NBC begins broadcasting the Olympics, and will not return thereafter. Leno will go back to 11:35, and O’Brien—well, nobody is quite sure what’s happening with him yet. NBC execs are reportedly considering having a half-hour Leno show at 11:35, the Tonight Show with O’Brien at 12:05, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon at 1:05. Carson Daly will presumably remain the only thing in the world that’s not funny at 2 in the morning (hat tip to my number 2 son for that joke).
Last spring, you may recall, the Peabrain Network announced the big change designed to accommodate O’Brien’s ambitions while giving Leno a good time slot. Most industry analysts questioned the move, wondering how NBC could hope to obtain good enough ratings from the Leno show. Although the show’s low budget (when compared with original programming, especially scripted dramatic or comedic shows) would ensure that NBC would probably turn a profit on the time slot, the affiliate stations were expected to take a beating in the ratings for their local 11:00 news shows, which are a major profit driver for local stations.
That’s exactly what happened. As I noted when the show premiered on September 14, “NBC . . . is placing its fortunes on a very risky move. Running the show every weeknight in the 10 p.m. slot risks destroying the affiliates’ nighttime newscasts if Leno’s ratings are not strong night after night. Last night’s premiere episode provided little reason to expect a large regular audience for the show.” The premiere episode was largely weak and awkward, certainly not the must-see entertainment the network must have expected, and nothing that viewers would see as more important to watch on any particular night than the crime dramas on the other networks.
As I noted at the time, “it’s difficult to imagine that this is going to be must-see TV. Or even bearable.” Leno tried gamely to make it work, and his ratings were enough to keep the network from losing money on the time slot, it appeared, but affilates’ 11 o’clock news shows were indeed taking a beating in the ratings because of the poor audience lead-in.
NBC confirmed this with the following statement last night in support of Leno:
Jay Leno is one of the most compelling entertainers in the world today. As we have said all along, Jay’s show has performed exactly as we anticipated on the network. It has, however, presented some issues for our affiliates. Both Jay and the show are committed to working closely with them to find ways to improve the performance.
Meanwhile, The Tonight Show, with new host O’Brien, was an even worse disaster. As I noted when NBC announced that O’Brien would take over Leno’s show and the 12:35 slot would be hosted by winsome, boyish talk-show neophyte Jimmy Fallon, “It seems likely that Late Night will be less ‘edgy’ and bizarre than it has been during O’Brien’s tenure, and that the Tonight Show will be much more of both than it has been while in Leno’s hands. Given the two programs’ time slots, it seems that the movement of hosts will probably reduce the ratings for NBC’s late-night slate, given that the 11:30 audience has historically been less adventurous than the 12:30 group. NBC is evidently hoping to change either the audience or O’Brien.”
And as I noted when O’Brien took over as Tonight host, the latter was”highly unlikely except through serious shrinkage. And of course that would be a disaster for the Peacock Network.”
That proved to be truer than anyone even imagined. Ratings for the Tonight Show are down a catastrophic 52 percent since O’Brien took over. Reeling in horror at the entirely predictable consequences of their attempt to placate the overly ambitious O’Brien, NBC almost certainly has decided to do at least two things: cancel the 10 p.m. Jay Leno Show and return Leno to 11:35.
Those moves would make perfect sense. As Leno humorously pointed out last night on his show, if NBC lets him go altogether, another network, most likely Fox, will grab him and win the 11:30 slot for themselves:
That would constitute not only losing a big asset for nothing, it would also make a major late-night player out of a competing network that currently has no presence in that time of day and would further cut into O’Brien’s Tonight Show ratings. Not smart.
Of course the Peabrain Network hasn’t been smart about any of this. Undoubtedly they’ve been listening to critics over the years, who like O’Brien for his edginess and dismiss Leno as too conventional. They would do much better to trust the audience numbers. Having long ago anointed O’Brien as Leno’s eventual successor, the network created a time bomb as O’Brien naturally kept wondering: When? O’Brien’s understandable desire to get to the big time in the 11:35 slot forced NBC’s hand, but making tough decisions ought to be part of why network bigwigs get paid so much. They should have told O’Brien long ago that he could work at 12:35 and like it or he could try his hand somewheres else.
Had they done that, they would have avoided the comprehensive disaster they created in attempting to satisfy their feverishly admired choice as Leno’s eventual successor, and O’Brien, had he gone to another network, would have tanked in the ratings. NBC would have won big at 11:30, would have had a perfectly competent 12:30 host in Fallon, and could have developed the latter or someone else as Leno’s eventual successor.
Now NBC is stuck with an understandably angry O’Brien who probably will see this all as NBC and Leno both stabbing him in the back. In reality, O’Brien never was a good fit for 11:30, as the ratings clearly show, and he would have been smarter to be satisfied with what he was, a 12:30 personality. People are what they are, however, and you don’t get a star without the ego and ambition that make people stars.
Where NBC really went wrong, however, is quite clear. In thrall to the common belief among U.S. elites that the American public is a mass of ignorant, prejudiced fools who can and should be transformed into European sophisticates through cultural brainwashing imposed by their superiors, the executives at NBC thought that they could change the audience to fit their changing product, and that changing the audience is in fact their real reason for being.
The audiences, derided in Hollywood’s inner sanctums as ignorant boobs all too easily led by mountebanks, are having the last laugh.