So here's the thing.
I'm not quite sure why I find this whole late-night NBC situation so fascinating. I mean, it doesn't affect me at all whether Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien host the Tonight Show, or what time they air. The only late night show we get in NZ is The Late Show With David Letterman, and while I used to watch his show every night for years, I've only been an occasional viewer for the last few years. I saw a couple of episodes of Jay Leno's Tonight Show a few years ago, and wasn't impressed at all, but I have liked the little of Conan that I've seen, both on Late Night and The Tonight Show. But really, all this doesn't affect me in the least. So why am I so interested by it?
Maybe it's just because it's a fascinating story. For those of you that aren't familiar with what is going on, for the last 55+ years The Tonight Show has aired on NBC at 11.35pm. When Johnny Carson left in 1992, after 30 years hosting the show, there was a really ugly changeover - David Letterman (who had been hosting Late Night at 12.35am) had long been presumed to be the person who would take over the show (and he was well-known to be Carson's preferred heir), but Jay Leno managed to get NBC to contract with him to take over the show. In fact, the whole saga resulted in a really excellent (and sadly out-of-print) book, as well as a TV movie. After losing The Tonight Show, Letterman left for CBS in 1993, and former SNL and Simpsons writer Conan O'Brien took over as host of the 12.35am Late Night show. Conan was not an experienced performer when he started (in fact, his first couple of years were notoriously awful), but he grew into the role and eventually became a rising star in the late-night talk-show world. So, back in 2004, Conan's contract was up for renewal, and he was receiving offers from competing networks offering him an earlier timeslot. At that time, Conan discussed these offers with NBC, which was understandably concerned about losing one of their big stars. But Conan was interested in The Tonight Show, which makes sense because it is one of the iconic television institutions in the US. Like almost every comic in America, Conan grew up watching Carson on The Tonight Show and dreaming of hosting it one day. But NBC obviously couldn't give The Tonight Show to Conan, because Leno was hosting it. So NBC went to Jay Leno, who agreed to resign in five years time and let Conan take over The Tonight Show. In a press release at the time, Leno is quoted as saying "In 2009, I'll be 59 years old and will have had this dream job for 17 years. I felt that the timing was right to plan for my successor and there is no one more qualified than Conan."
We come to 2009. NBC is generally and accurately reckoned to be a mess - which is disappointing because as a network it shows some of my favourite shows airing today (The Office, Chuck, Friday Night Lights, 30 Rock, etc). Meanwhile, Jay is reconsidering his decision to retire. He's committed to leaving The Tonight Show, but he doesn't want to. NBC panics that they might lose Leno to another network, and so offers him a talk show in primetime from 10pm to 11pm five nights a week - an opportunity that Leno jumps at. Meanwhile NBC is happy because it means that they don't lose Leno and they need five fewer hours of original programming a week - one whole week of Leno costs the same as one single hour-long drama series, so NBC saves a lot of money. Of course, a primetime talk show doesn't get as many viewers as the original dramas or comedies that used to air at 10pm but that doesn't matter because, even with lower viewer numbers, the reduced costs mean the 10pm hour is more profitable to NBC than previously. But reduced viewer numbers at 10pm means that there are much fewer people still watching NBC at 11pm, which is when the various NBC affiliates (that broadcast NBC shows in different regions) air their local news shows. And the 11pm news shows are huge money earners for the affiliates. Lower ratings at 10pm mean lower ratings at 11pm for the news shows. So NBC is saving a lot of money by showing Leno instead of original programming, but the affiliates are losing a lot of money and start to revolt. Meanwhile, Conan's ratings aren't great - Leno consistently beat Letterman in the ratings for the last 15 or so years, but they replace Leno with Conan and suddenly Letterman wins late-night. But that's inevitable - Conan needs time to build his audience at the earlier time, especially since his comic sensibility is so different to that of Leno. (And remember that Leno's ratings were also awful in his first couple of years - and he was already known to the Tonight Show audience, as he had guest hosted frequently, while Conan and his comedy style was entirely new to Tonight Show viewers - but Leno was given the time and opportunity to work and shape his show into something that did succeed.) Plus, if the affiliates' argument (that low ratings for Leno mean low ratings for the 11pm news) is true, logic dictates that those low ratings for news shows must also feed into low ratings for Conan. Plus, adding yet another talkshow to the mix means that the limited audience for NBC talkshows is further divided between Leno at 10pm, Conan at 11.30pm, and Jimmy Fallon at 12.30am (plus Carson Daly is there somewhere at 1.30am). In other words, Conan's low ratings are due in part to Leno's continued presence and failure in primetime. Besides, Conan was never going to start out with the same ratings on the Tonight Show as Leno was getting at the end of his run, and to expect that would have been unreasonable. Putting Conan in the show should have been about securing the future of late-night talk on NBC, and he needed to be given time to build the show into the success that it would have been, and should have been.
Unfortunately NBC panicked in the face of the affiliates' unhappiness, and so last week it announced that they are taking Leno off-air in a couple of weeks, and putting his show back to 11.35pm where it will air as a half-hour show. Conan keeps The Tonight Show, since he is contractually entitled to that, but it now airs at 12.05am, with flow-on effects for the even-later-night talk shows. Now, Conan is not happy, understandably. After all, The Tonight Show at 12.05am is actually The Tomorrow Show. So he puts out this awesome press release (which really is a must-read) in which he states that he will not host a Tonight Show that starts after midnight. He talks about the impact of this decision on the historic show, as well as the wider impact on the following late-night shows. It's a brilliant statement, and really forces NBC into a position where they need to make a decision between Leno and Conan. The whole thing turns into a complete fiasco, with pretty much every talk show host on television ripping into Leno and NBC - Letterman's discussions of the situation were tinged by his well-known hatred of Leno and NBC for taking The Tonight Show from him back in 1992, Craig Ferguson burnt all bridges with NBC by calling them "lying rat bastards", and Jimmy Kimmel proved more awesome than I ever would have imagined by performing his entire show as Jay Leno. (Two days later, when appearing on Leno's show, Kimmel hilariously ripped into Leno - in my favourite moment comparing Leno to Lucy pulling the football out from Charlie Brown - while the host just stood there plainly regretting the decision to invite Kimmel. It was awesome.) Meanwhile Conan, seemingly accepting that his time on the iconic Tonight Show is over only seven months after it started, basically went rogue, openly and angrily attacking Leno and NBC. Even just watching all this stuff in brief online clips on YouTube, as a viewer this whole fiasco has been phenomenal and resulted in some of the best television in a long time.
But how do I feel about all this? Not that it actually matters where one single unimportant person living in New Zealand thinks about this situation, but personally, I'm fully on the side of Conan. It's partly because, from the little I've seen of Conan, I think he is genuinely funny, and I don't think Leno is. Plus, Conan was involved in the completely brilliant Conan/Colbert/Stewart feud, which was the only good thing to come out of the 2007/08 Writers Strike, and which ended in a fight that was the single funniest moment of television that year. But mostly, I just think that what has happened here is wrong. Everything that I have read on this topic says that Leno chose to retire. It may have been a decision that he was asked to make by NBC, but ultimately it was Leno's choice to resign, and based on what is publicly known it seems disingenuous to suggest (as Leno has been doing lately) that NBC fired him from The Tonight Show. And Conan basically put his entire career on hold on the understanding that Leno had resigned and would be gone by the time he took over The Tonight Show. But Leno changed his mind once it was too late. Usually, that would just be tough luck, but instead, NBC kept Leno around, in an experiment that pretty much everyone that isn't an NBC executive knew was doomed to fail - as it did. But having Leno stay around also critically undermined Conan's ability to perform as expected.
And now it looks like Leno is going to be rewarded for all this. Current reports sound like Leno is getting The Tonight Show back at 11.35pm, and Conan is out of NBC, probably with a huge payout and the freedom to go to another broadcaster to make a new show. I hope this is incorrect, I really hope that Conan does get to keep The Tonight Show, but it really does look like Conan will be out of NBC in the next week or two. And if so, that result is wrong. Just wrong. And I feel this very strongly. The man who spoke so strongly on air back in 2004 about the show being a dynasty that you have and then you pass it on, and how he wanted to avoid all the in-fighting and ugliness that accompanied his taking over the show, so here you are Conan, here's the show - this guy changed his mind, he failed in his new project, so he's now given his old job back, and the guy to whom he passed on this dynasty is thrown out. The insane thing is that I suspect this whole fiasco has badly harmed Leno. When he does come back after the Olympics with his new Tonight Show with Jay Leno, I suspect that this mess will have tainted Leno to a degree that NBC hasn't predicted. He's lost the "everyday nice guy" public appearance, instead becoming the guy who bullied the new guy out of a job, and I don't see Leno's Tonight Show ever regaining the position as the number-1-rated late night talk show. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Leno rates lower than Conan did during his run. But by then it will be too late, and NBC will be stuck with Leno while Conan establishes himself over on Fox, and hopefully does well.
But, in my view, here's what NBC needs to do. They can't just make decisions based on this week's ratings, they need to look at what will put them in the most secure position in the long term. And the best long-term decision for them would be to drop Leno (or else give him a daytime show - I hear their daytime schedule isn't that great), keep Conan on The Tonight Show, and just accept that ratings will be down for the next while. Leno's no threat, since if he does manage to get a show on another network it will be close to a year before he goes to air, and in the meantime Conan's Tonight Show will have developed its audience and Leno will have lost many of his habitual viewers. And in a few years time, when both Letterman and Leno decide to retire (this time for real), you've got a polished show and an established host in Conan who will then be in a position to rule the 11.35pm slot for the next however-many years to come. But I don't see NBC taking this approach, because it requires them to consider the long-term consequences of their actions - and if recent actions have shown us one thing, it's that NBC doesn't know how to look long-term. Instead, they'll dump Conan in favour of Leno, and in a few years time run into a real succession problem when Leno does decide to retire. Who do you get to take over this pivotal franchise, when you've lost Conan, and none of the other people currently working on late-night quite seem to fit.
So there you are, NBC, some free advice on how to resolve your late-night programming dilemma. You're welcome. And if you don't take it, don't say I didn't warn you.