Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Late-Night War: My Thoughts






Well, what a fine mess this is.

The last few days have been crazy in terms of NBC's late-night shake-ups. And I have to wonder - what is going on here? The most insane thing about all this is that it looks like the end result may be Leno back as host of The Tonight Show and Conan heading for the hills (and/or FOX). Some Jay Leno fans will be happy that their guy is back at 11:30. Most of those people are over 50. Meanwhile though, you have to think that NBC is simply shooting itself in the foot. Five years ago, NBC, and presumably Leno, passed the baton to Conan. The whole point of that early transitional announcement was, in theory, to avoid the kind of messiness that resulted when Johnny Carson retired. Jay Leno knew better than anyone the kind of bitterness and infighting that would be inevitable without a predetermined arrangement, and for a while, he pretended to be the gracious company man. But that humble and gracious guy was not the real Jay Leno.

This is where it's hard to have much empathy for Jay. He more than anyone is well aware that the late-night game is a marathon and not a sprint. It took Jay years to become #1 in late-night, and you could argue that there was *a lot* of luck that went into Jay eventually overtaking Letterman in the ratings. Jay scratched and clawed his way onto The Tonight Show. You'd think that he would want Conan to have it a little better, a little easier. Afterall, Conan payed his dues. He hosted Late Night for seventeen years, and slowly but surely grew into the best host in late-night. This was his time, this was his moment.

But from the moment Conan took over The Tonight Show, there were countless forces working against him. Some of it was bad luck - Letterman's sex scandal was probably the turning point in the ratings war, and it gave Dave a lot of momentum. But some of it was NOT luck. Instead of retiring gracefully as planned, Leno suddenly portrayed himself as the guy who was prematurely "cancelled" by the network. He threatened to leave NBC and jump ship to another network - probably ABC - where he'd go head to head with Conan. NBC didn't want that, so they looked for some sort of solution. Meanwhile, NBC was hurting in primetime and looking to cut costs, to play for margins rather than ratings. They brought back Leno to do a daily 10 pm show. And just about everyone saw it coming: this was a disaster in the making.

Here's where yo usee the night-and-day difference between Jay and Conan. Before he took over The Tonight Show, everyone was speculating on what sort of show Conan would do. Would he keep the randomness and wackiness of Late Night, or would he cater more to Jay's old audience and be a little more straightforward and toned-down. Conan undoubtedly started off a bit shakily from a creative standpoint. The monologue was too long, Andy seemed a bit awkward, and there were too many remote sketches. But did Conan rest on his laurels? Hell no. He tweaked and he made adjustments. The show got better and funnier by the week. And over the last few months, The Tonight Show was truly great late-night television. Conan was hitting his stride. Meanwhile, Jay gets a completely experimental timeslot at 10 pm. He really ahd a chance to try something new and different. There was talk of bringing in lots of young comedians and doing more of an old-fashioned variety show. It still seemed risky, but at least Jay would give it the old college try ... right? Nope. The Jay Leno Show turned out to be Jay's version of The Tonight Show, except earlier. The same lame sketches, the same warmed-over monologue jokes, and a couple of new yet unimpressive bits that fell totally flat. Did Jay tweak? Did he work tirelessly to find the perfect creative balance? No, he just kept plugging away. Content, seemingly, just to be on TV, to be taking up space on the airwaves. As Patton Oswalt recently talked about in an interview, Jay is Nixonian in terms of his survival instinct. He wants to "win," but not for any particular reason - he doesn't care about doing things the right way or about being the best in the biz - he just wants to stay alive.

And you know, someone IM'd me today and said something that was so out-of-left-field. They said "see, this proves what I've always said, that Conan isn't funny." That's like saying "well, The Rolling Stones' latest album didn't sell that well, so, see, it proves that they were never any good." Conan's comedy credentials are unquestionable. Editor of the Harvard Lampoon, acclaimed writer for The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, and host of one of the best and most innovative talk shows ever. I fully understand that some people don't "get" Conan. And that's cool. I may not "get" Radiohead, but I'm not going to just say "yeah, they suck." Comedy is subjective, last I checked, but to the people who see recent events as some sort of validation of Jay's everyman humor as being superior to Conan's more ironic and absurdist sensibilities ... no, I'm sorry, don't even go there. And I'm not going to bash Jay either, at least in that regard. Old footage of Leno shows that the guy can be pretty sharp when he wants to. But somewhere along the way, Jay lost that edge. He became less about being funny and more about simply being the alternative to Letterman. If Letterman was hip and ironic, then Jay would be the exact oppossite. But what does bother me is that all these middle-aged, middle American people buy Jay as being this empathetic, picked-on everyman. Please. The guy is a multi-millionaire. He owns two-hundred cars and wears all-denim all-the-time. He's stayed afloat this long not because of his everyman charm, but by being utterly ruthless. Suffice it to say, he's not exactly Joe Average.

Look, you have to be ruthless in showbiz to some extent. You have to fight for your spot. At the same time, in entertainment, as in sports, there is that "time-honored tradition." The passing of the torch. The building of a legacy. Leno of all people, you would think, would be mindful of doing things the right way with his obvious successor in Conan. But not so. He went on to host the doomed 10 pm show, and then went on to flip out once it was clear that that show had to go. This could have been Leno's Michael Jordan moment. The 10 pm show was like Jordan's comeback season with The Wizards. An interesting experiment, but at the end of the day, not worth the tarnished legacy. Still, Jordan was able to go out gracefully and his Wizards run is only a small footnote in an otherwise remarkable career. Leno wasn't content for his post-2009 career to just be a weird footnote though. He wanted The Tonight Show back. And it looks like he's in good position to get it. AND STILL ... he is on the air begging for the crowd's sympathy. He is about to pull off one of the biggest switcheroos in entertainment history, and he's out there whining about how he's been unjustly "fired" and "cancelled" once again. Yes Jay, an ENTIRE NETWORK is being run into the ground because of this failed 10 pm experiment, but let's all feel sorry for you. So many times on this blog, I've talked about great series like Freaks & Geeks and Arrested Development that were prematurely cancelled. Shows that never got the marketing push they deserved, that might have done better had they been given more of a chance. How does Jay not realize after all his years in showbiz that if you fail in primetime, you've got to go? As I alluded to, *far* better shows than The Jay Leno Show have been cancelled due to low ratings. And those were only on once a week.

But let's talk about this from a business perspective. Afterall, that's ultimately what all this comes down to, right? First of all, one of the smarter things that NBC did was to organize an early deal that was supposed to have ensured a smooth transition from Jay to Conan. Jay can talk all he wants about how he was forced out, but five years ago, Jay agreed to the deal. He could have put up a fight then if he wanted to. Nobody was forcing him into it - he could have jumped ship. Regardless, this made a ton of sense for NBC. The Tonight Show is a storied franchise, and it made sense to ensure that it had a bright future. Conan was the right choice for the job. The deal kept him at NBC and cemented The Tonight Show as a premiere franchise for years if not decades to come.

But then, NBC fumbled the ball. Putting Jay at 10 was seen as a way to negate the losses of a continually weak prime-time lineup. But the logic of Jay at 10 was clearly faulty. 10 pm was a tough timeslot for NBC, but especially in this day and age of DVR, how can you write off a whole hour of primetime? CBS does great at 10. ABC is doing great now. NBC has done great in the past. If NBC had a killer drama at 10, people would watch it. NBC's #1 priority should have been developing a great primetime lineup that would get them back in the game. Having a low-cost but low-rated show like Leno doesn't help you at all in the long-run. There are far too many negative side-effects. You weaken the affiliates and the local news. You weaken the rest of the primetime lineup. You weaken advertising revenue. The low-ratings hurt your ability to promote your other programming. You lose the opportunity to promote huge events like The Olympics. You weaken your late-night lineup, not only in the ratings, but in terms of diluting them since stars have one more show on which to appear. It certainly doesn't help Conan when Jay, and not him, is booking A-list talent every episode. These aren't just things that are easy to say in hindsight. This was clearly the light at the end of the tunnel, and it's crazy to me that NBC went ahead with the Leno experiment anyway despite these warning signs. I mean, so what if they had lost Leno to ABC? ABC has had a losing late-night show for years in Kimmel, but I don't think they'd trade places with fourth-place NBC any time soon. At the end of the day, primetime is what's most important, and you don't sacrifice those timeslots just to avoid taking a hit in the late-night wars. Having such a low-rated show air every night at 10 is like putting a giant black hole in the middle of your programming lineup. And come on, did anyone really think the ratings would be much higher than they've been? Even the most fervent Leno supporters were not going to commit to watching him *every night* in primetime. Something was going to give.

And it's for that reason that Leno had to go. I agree with and support the decision to can Leno at 10. It had to happen, for the sake of the network. But did it have to go down like it did? For one thing, and this is even beside the point a bit, why can Leno when you don't even have a contingency plan in place for 10 pm? The timing wasn't right. But more relevant to this post, why did the whole process once again become about making Leno happy? From a business perspective, Leno is now damaged goods. If he went to another network, there's no way he'd have the same ratings he did in his previous Tonight Show stint. Too much confusion, too much ill-will. On the other hand, a HUGE long-term investment had already been made in Conan. He had been given the keys to the kingdom. His Tonight Show was improving creatively and doing relatively well in the ratings. Getting beaten by Letterman, sure, but how long could that last? How much longer is Letterman even going to stick around? Instead, you bring back the guy who almost dragged your network into the abyss over the past year. The whole thing is messy. Just plain ugly. And it doesn't help that the whole "compromise" idea, of putting Leno at 11:30 and Conan at midnight, was basically a way to throw Conan's contract back in his face. Clearly, NBC is pretty confident that Conan will be in breach of contract as long as he was offered a timeslot at 12:05 am or earlier. I am skeptical that Conan could win that legal battle.

But the fact that Conan defied NBC today even without the assurance of a guaranteed payout is proof of his integrity and class. People defend Leno by saying that, hey, he's just doing what he has to to survive in showbiz. But right here is Conan showing that there is a high road. Conan's letter to the NY Times today was spectacular. And that comes from a guy who's written his share of angry letters / blogs. Conan very clearly stated his position, with an uncanny mix of logic and humor. I mean let's face it - you can only be pushed around so much before you have to man up and take a stand. Previously, I had predicted that Conan would stick around at The Tonight Show, even at a later time slot, because clearly he had so much respect for the tradition and prestige of the franchise. But I think I actually underestimated Conan. His respect for the franchise is such that he doesn't want it to be watered down or messed around with. If he is to properly do right by The Tonight Show, then it would have to be with the full support of the network, and under circumstances that actually made sense, that weren't there just to create some half-assed compromise.

Think about it - Jay back at 11:30 after all this drama is ultimately going to be a sinking ship. People have moved on. Jay at another network at this point would be a minimal threat to NBC. Meanwhile, who knows what kind of damage Conan could do. His is an ultra-loyal audience that will follow him elsewhere. And guess what? His is the same audience that is the next generation of TV watchers. The ones who are going to question their support of an entire network once their hero has been unceremoniously cast off. Giving Conan the boot in this fashion is the kind of monumental moment that is going to create animosity and ill-will that is going to last for a long, long time. And what of the legacy of The Tonight Show? It's now tarnished, no question. I mean look, I'm 27 years old. I'm too young to have ever really watched Johnny Carson, though I have the utmost respect for the man and his comedic legacy. But in my lifetime, *my* Carson has been Conan. He influenced my sense of humor, my career choice, my TV watching habits. For me, he set the gold standard. So many people of a slightly older generation talk about Letterman and the standard he set. Conan is that guy for the Gen Y crowd. Conan is a comedic genius and a nice guy to boot. That's why it feels so raw, so personal, when he gets kicked around like this. Maybe it's not always captured in the Nielsen ratings, but sometimes you can't quite quantify these things. Sometimes, you just know - you read the Facebook comments, you talk to your friends, you read the websites and blogs, and you live it. Booting Conan hit a raw nerve, and this is going to be one bitter pill for a lot of people to swallow. So yeah, I will gladly argue that dropping Conan is bad business, probably in the short-term and definitely in the long-term. But it's also more than that - it just ain't right.

I hope that this all works out for the best for all parties involved, I really do. But until it all shakes out, count me as a proud member of Team Conan.

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