My Final Word on NBC's Late Night Fiasco
I’ve spent much of this weekend watching some of the new shows the networks will be introducing in the next few weeks.
But before I look ahead to what the new year has to offer, I need to take my last look at what I consider to be the biggest TV story of 2010—NBC’s late night fiasco.
When people look back on the whole thing, they are going to look at “The Jay Leno Show” as a huge mistake. But the truth is there were a number of mistakes made by everyone involved along the way.
Here are the biggest mistakes in order of their occurrence:
1) NBC Head Honcho Jeff Zucker decides to give Conan O’Brien “The Tonight Show” to keep Conan from going to FOX.
This was the biggest mistake of all, in my opinion. Jay was #1 by a large margin and making millions of dollars for the network. But Zucker was concerned that Conan leaving would hurt NBC. However, as we all learned—and NBC should have already known—Jay and Conan had two completely different audiences. Conan was not going to hurt Jay. NBC should have just let him go.
2) Jay Leno accepted the five-year succession plan in 2004 giving Conan “The Tonight Show” in 2010.
In Jay’s defense, NBC really didn’t leave him with much of a choice. He could’ve walked at the end of his contract, but NBC could’ve possibly taken him off the air for the remainder of that contract if they wanted to be spiteful. And five years seemed like such a ways off, it probably seemed crazy to walk away from five more years of the show. But most importantly to Jay, he didn’t want a repeat of NBC’s previous late night debacle. But looking back, Jay maybe should’ve told Zucker to stick it.
3) Conan O’Brien accepted the five-year succession plan and rejected FOX’s offer.
Conan wanted to host “The Tonight Show” and when NBC dangled that carrot, he couldn’t resist. But what Conan didn’t realize—but should have—was that he wasn’t “Tonight” material. He appealed to a niche audience with his comedy, while Jay appealed more to the masses (For the record, I’m not saying Jay is funnier, he just appeals to more people.). Conan should have realized that and gone to FOX, where he would’ve been a great fit.
4) Jeff Zucker decides to stick with his plan and not buy out Conan’s contract.
As Jay continued to dominate the ratings and Conan started to slip behind Craig Ferguson’s show from time to time, NBC could’ve pulled the plug. They could’ve paid Conan off and let him go someplace else. It would’ve looked bad, but nowhere near as bad as what happened. And people would have understood the reasoning.
5) Jay Leno accepts a show at 10 p.m. and rejects a move to ABC.
The mistake here was not the creation of the 10 p.m. show. If Jay had left NBC, he would’ve crushed Conan, so you can’t blame Jeff Zucker for being desperate. The mistake was that Jay accepted the deal when ABC was all lined up (Jay even had Jimmy Kimmel on board.). In his defense, his reasons were sound. Jay would have to be off the air at least six months, which would have cost his staff their jobs. Plus, Jay was concerned how that much time off the air would affect his ratings. Plus, Jay is a creature of habit and had gotten used to his NBC routine and there was some loyalty at play—although I’m not sure why. I believe that even with the time off, Jay would’ve crushed NBC—which would’ve served them right.
6) NBC makes it impossible for “The Jay Leno Show” to be successful.
The affiliates were nervous about “Leno,” so NBC asked that Jay’s best bits—“Headlines,” “Jaywalking”—be moved to the end of the hour. But because the network had also insisted there be only one guest to differentiate it from “Tonight,” the second segment had to be filled by comics and bits that weren’t always funny. Without a strong second segment, people quit watching and the show was doomed.
7) Jeff Gaspin, NBC’s programming chief, tells everyone else about moving Jay Leno back to 11:35 p.m. before he tells Conan.
When you look at everything involved and the situation NBC found itself in, the plan to put Jay at 11:35 p.m. and move Conan back to 12:05 a.m. was not totally insane. Especially when you hear that NBC planned for it to be a temporary move until Jay retired. But Conan’s reaction was completely understandable since he was the very last person to know. Jimmy Fallon even knew the plan before Conan. If they had gone to Conan first—and if Zucker had gone instead of Gaspin—things might have turned out differently,
Now, even though things have settled down quite a bit with Jay back on top and Conan at TBS, late night has been forever changed. I have to admit that I no longer watch “The Tonight Show” myself. That’s mainly because Kevin Eubanks is gone, but I do feel like the show is a little tainted now.
Thank goodness the people at Comcast were smart enough to realize Jeff Zucker needed to go.
If you want to get the whole sordid story, I highly recommend Bill Carter’s outstanding book, “The War for Late Night.”
Photo Credit: NBC