There were an extraordinary number of rumors flying around yesterday about NBC’s late-night situation, and I’m sure many of you heard at some point during the day that either Jay Leno had been cancelled, that Conan O’Brien had, or that the entire 11:30 hour was going to be replaced by Subway commercials (that was my rumor).
Here’s the story as it stands: Jay Leno’s ratings were suffering, because those boneheads over on NBC tried to cheapskate their way out of 5 hours of programming while keeping Chin boob happy by putting him at the 10:00 slot five nights a week. And while the ploy wasn’t a spectacular failure for the NBC network — ratings were bad, but consistent, and high enough to pay for an inexpensive production — it was a failure for the affiliates, who were getting a lousy lead-in to their local newscasts, which in turn led to poor lead-ins to Conan O’Brien at 11:30, which in turn allowed Letterman to gain a 2 million viewer advantage over “The Tonight Show.” All of which is to say, in the last 9 months, NBC managed to screw up the one bright spot, ratings-wise, on their schedule: “The Tonight Show,” which was fairly dominant with Leno as host (God knows why, but there you go).
So, obviously, NBC needed to do something about the situation, but they also had to contend with the fact that Leno is clearly the bigger draw to mainstream audiences, and that both Conan and Leno were under huge guaranteed contracts. So what does the network do?
From what we know so far, it looks like Jay Leno is going to be moving back to the 11:30 slot, after the Winter Olympics finish their run, where he will have a half-hour show that will lead into Conan’s hour-long show (presumably, Conan will keep “The Tonight Show,” while Leno will continue under “The Jay Leno Show” banner). Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon looks to be moving to the 1 a.m. graveyard, which is — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — a shame, as I’ve caught a few episodes of Fallon’s show, and it’s not embarrassing. He strikes out more than he succeeds, but he tries a lot of new things, which is more than I can say for the other late-night talk show hosts (including Dave, who has been doing the same, reliable shtick for decades).
How will this shake out? My guess is that Leno will regain a lot of the audience that Conan lost in the 11:30 hour, that Conan’s ratings will hold steady at midnight, and Fallon will probably lose a few viewers. Still, I don’t see Leno regaining his dominance — NBC late night is broken. “The Tonight Show” has been an institution on NBC for over 50 years, and in less than a year, the network has run it into the ground. It’s not irreparably damaged, perhaps, but it probably won’t regain its foothold until both Leno and Letterman retire, and I’m not sure that Conan is the guy that’s going to be around for a couple of decades into the future.
But the one question that still lingers for me, and that hasn’t really been addressed is this: NBC is losing 5 hours in prime-time programming. How do they expect to fill those five hours on short notice? And what can they come up with that’s going to provide a better lead in than Leno’s 5 million nightly viewers? Are they going to roll out five nights of “Deadline” or “To Catch a Pedophile”? Apparently, NBC has 18 pilots for prospective series, but how quickly can they get those up and running? And how well could they possibly do against the established shows on the other networks at 10 p.m.
I see the necessity of this move — the NBC nitwits have to fix what they broke. But I think they’re jumping the gun a bit. They could’ve waited until the Fall; maybe Leno would’ve bowed out. Maybe Conan could’ve picked up a few viewers. And, at the very least, it would’ve given the network a few months to develop a 10:00 slate of programs that might do better than Leno. The reason they decided to move Leno to 10:00 in the first place was because those late-evening dramas were expensive. I don’t expect that that will change, and giving the lack of lead time and the rushed development of these new series, I don’t see them doing much better than Leno in the short-run (I bet they’re regretting the hell out of letting go of “Southland” now). They’re just throwing money at the problem, which is exactly what they were trying to prevent in the first place.
If you ask me, they should just fire them both and fill the 11:30 slot with Tina Fey’s “Dealbreakers.” Then we all win!