On the Conan/Jay Debacle

The dust-up over what to do with The Jay Leno Show and The Tonight Show Starring Conan O’Brien is a pretty fascinating look on how really bad decisions are being made by NBC execs.

If you haven’t caught up, basically the 10pm-aired Jay Leno Show was doing badly in ratings after its premiere. So badly, in fact, that many local NBC affiliates considered dropping the show in favor of higher-rated programming to lead into much needed boosts for local news.  In order to save face and possibly keep Leno from moving to another network (something that seemed a possible threat when Leno left The Tonight Show), NBC is moving Leno to 11:35pm and giving him a half-hour and pushing The Tonight Show Starring Conan O’Brien to 12:05am.

Conan O’Brien has a right to be majorly pissed.

Normally, a show’s failure would mean one thing to a network: cancellation. What I’d like to know is what is NBC thinking? New York Daily News critic David Hinckley is apparently wondering the same thing and he’s right. This could be NBC’s dumbest programming move ever.

What gets me is why Leno has to be treated so royally? He gave up The Tonight Show and got a prime time shot and he failed. Case (should be) closed.

But somehow, he and NBC are getting cover by some who think that this is just some grand experiment and Jay should be given a break.  One of those chiming in is Jerry Seinfeld:

” I think this was the right idea at the wrong time. I’m proud of NBC for trying to do something different. That’s just showbiz and you’ve got to try things.”

When asked whether he would stay at NBC if he was in Conan O’Brien’s shoes–that is, being asked to move his show to 12:05 a.m. after having the plum 11:35 p.m. slot–Seinfeld put the onus of The Tonight Show’s ratings performance on O’Brien. “I don’t think anybody’s done anything to Conan,” Seinfeld said. “What did the network do to him? I don’t think anybody’s preventing anyone from watching Conan.”

So moving your family and the family of staff members from NYC to LA for possibly only four months is no big deal? Also, apparently, Seinfeld forgot about the idea of lead-ins, because local affiliates sure didn’t.  But those aren’t the only things that bugged me about the statements.  Seinfeld made a comparison of the “Leno shuffle” to the AOL-Time Warner deal.  Not a good choice.

Why isn’t that a good choice? Because it’s not the first time NBC has given a former Tonight Show host his own prime time talk show airing before the current Tonight Show. Virtually the same move was made when Jack Paar left The Tonight Show in 1962. NBC, fearing the popular Paar would move to another network, gave him a weekly TV show in a talk format. Paar’s new show ran concurrently with The Tonight Show, which for the next few months had guest hosts (Groucho Marx and Jerry Lewis among them) until Johnny Carson was able to begin his long-term contract with NBC. The Jack Paar Show worked for a couple of years, in large part due to the unique style he had and the pairing of fantastic guests.  I mean, having Cassius Clay and Liberace on the same show reading poetry to music is truly genius. But, you see, that’s why Paar lasted an extra two years–genius.

Which brings me to the final point. It’s one that the great comic and actor Patton Oswalt brings up on the radio show Oh No They Didn’t. Jay Leno actually didn’t push The Tonight Show forward with its comedy. Listen to this audio of his assessment, it’s very good.

Each of the long-term hosts of The Tonight Show brought something unique to the show. The first host, Steve Allen, brought a wild spontaneous humor and goofy characters to the show. Successor Jack Paar was incredibly astute, emotionally honest and had a fantastic hilarious repartee with intelligent guests. Johnny Carson had an innate ability to have a symbiotic rapport with world leaders and everyday people alike, leading to genuinely organic humor.  What did Leno bring that was distinctive and progressed late night comedy?  O’Brien has a chance to really take The Tonight Show further and get this institution back on track.

If he’s not given that chance, I think O’Brien should take his $80 million and produce other shows. He’s actually in the driver’s seat, since he might have a case for breach of contract.

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