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The late night wars: Questions answered here

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 I know you have questions about Conan O'Brien, Jay Leno, the meaning of life, and the nature of God, free will versus fate, and where to buy the best hamburger in New York or Long Island.

  I can only help you with Conan and Jay today. So, let's get straight to 'em:

 Why did NBC cancel "The Jay Leno Show?"

 The affiliates told it to. This was an affiliate decision - period. The tail wagged the dog. Their late local news programs were getting no lead-in audience. They were getting hammered. You must realize - in many cities, especially in smaller markets, TV stations are on the knife-edge of profitability and many are losing money. Their late news/early morning shows are their profit centers. Period.

Would NBC have kept Jay at 10?

  Yes. I believe so. If lead-ins were not hurt.

Why didn't NBC anticipate this?

 Their answer will be - "we wouldn't know until we tried..." That's true, to an extent. But also false. Any idiot could tell the affils weren't going to get the same lead-in numbers as they would if an "ER" was at 10. But NBC didn't care. It made a super-simple calculation: If Jay gets a 1.5 household rating, it could make $300 mill per annum, because the cost of a scripted hour runs about $3 million per. Jay was cents compared to this. It was so cheap it would balance out the big hurt that was put on NBC's owned stations.

 But doesn't NBC care about its affiliates?

 No. It hates their guts. All the networks hate their affiliates - they think they're greedy morons (and vice versa.) But they're a necessary evil - the networks think. In fact, the networks increasingly have come to see the network/affiliate relationship as an anvil - an anachronism from the earliest days of this business, and one that will eventually give way to some other distribution form. They just don't know what yet.

  Come on! There had to be another reason, right? 

  I suppose I am over-simplifying. In fact, the decision to get Co at the "Tonight Show" was made six years ago - when Fox and Sony and ABC were coming after him. NBC figured the only way to keep him was to give him the "T" show, and figured that six years  was enough time to make the transition AND force Conan to sign a longterm deal. Longterm deals are always better for networks cuz that means they don't have to go back and renegotiate every other year. So it kinda looked smart from NBC's perspective. The only x factor was Jay. No one expected he'd retire but it did appear a couple years ago ABC might make a play for him. Uh oh!  So NBC offered him 10. For NBC that also was kinda smart because it kept Jay in-house and he wasn't free to roam and cause damage. It was also an insurance policy. If "Tonight" under Conan flopped, then it could get Jay back in.


 Was "The Jay Leno Show" a flop?

  Not really - he numbers were basically what NBC expected 'em to be. It was just a cheap program move by the network, as it prepped itself for sale to Comcast. But again, affils wanted it gone, and Jay back at 11:35.  


 Why didn't NBC gradually cut back Jay to three days a week, then two, and so on?

  I've come to the conclusion that Jay had in his contract - five days a week, period. NBC's hands were tied. It was all or nothing. This is my surmisal. I can't prove it.

Did Jay a role in pushing Conan out, and getting his old job back?

  This is a key question and allow me to linger a bit longer on it. If the answer is "yes," than it imputes duplicitous, underhanded motives to Leno. Many observers - David Letterman! - obviously believe he is a back-stabbing honey-tongued Iago. I think the real answer is more complex. I've known Leno for about 20 years; interviewed him a number of times, and like him. He is also a ferocious competitor whose sunny disposition masks a single-mindedness that very very few people have. He essentially cares about three things, only - work; his wife; his cars/motorcycles. He loves to be on TV, write jokes - dozens in a day, and of those five or six are actually pretty funny, the rest (probably awful), which is an amazingly good batting average, and one of the reasons he was once revered by standups everywhere. He's almost more machine than man - just an incredibly single-minded, focused, and (above all) disciplined person.
  He is also a somewhat odd personality by Hollywood standards - an all-politics-is-local type who will actually call affiliates, chat with 'em, do concerts in their cities, attend conventions, and all that other grubby stuff that someone like David Letterman wouldn't be caught dead doing.

 Gay, you're babbling and still haven't answered the question - did he stab Conan in the back?

 Jay knew exactly what he was doing. He knew affiliates would get no lead-in. He knew they would bitch and moan. He knew they would agitate for a return to the old "Tonight" and he knew that all he had to do was sit tight.  Agreeing to 10 was strategically very clever - he won both either way. If the show stumbled, then he'd likely get a call to go back to 11:35; if it succeeded at 10, then he'd be the most important person in TV history. Either worked fine for him.

 Why didn't Conan realize he was being set up?

  He did. He knew Leno was in a strategically stronger position than he was, but what was he gonna do? He got the brass ring! "Tonight Show!" Of course he woulda preferred Jay leave NBC altogether. But it was not his call to make.

 Was Conan being a whiney wimp for not moving "Tonight" to 12:05, as NBC offered?

  No. He also made a sound strategic decision - even if it meant losing "Tonight." Consider - if Jay's new 11:35 show did well, then how much longer before affiliates started pressuring NBC to make "The Jay Leno Show" one FULL hour (11:35-12:35), and push Conan's "Tonight" to 12:35? Also - you gotta understand - ratings for any show drop precipitously at midnight on the East Coast. His "Tonight" would instantly be a sitting duck for Leno. Conan knew checkmate when he saw it.

  Has Leno been hurt by this?

  What - hurt with viewers? I don't think so. He'll go back to "Tonight" and he'll start getting 4-5 million again, just like that, doing the old show he was doing for the older crowd that he appealed to. They’re not gonna see this as a "how could Jay do this to that nice young man" story. They don't care about that nice young man.

 Was "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" a creative flop?

 No. It was a success. From day one. The numbers were actually OK too - not great, but serviceable (about 2 million viewers per night, or a little south of that.)

  So why didn't viewers embrace him like they did Jay all those years?

 Great question, simple answer. Conan's humor is "ironic," right coast, and more specifically, right coast/northeast. It plays well with the chattering classes, the white/fanboy/press type - or, someone like me, to be specific. Not well with the rest of the country. Leno is a breadbasket personality - bawdy without being (too) vulgar, somewhat bland, smart without being show-offy, funny enough - meaning again, that his monologues bat about .300, or three good jokes to seven awful ones. Also, women and men like him, and mostly older women and men, who comprise the bulk of the typical TV viewing audience. Conan's natural audience tends to scorn the idea of sitting in front of a TV at 11:35, and watching till they nod off.

  Will Conan go to Fox?

 Probably but who really knows. I believe Fox will work out some sort of simulcast deal, whereby his new show airs at 11 on both Fox owned stations (there are 27, but some of those are MyNetwork affils) and FX.



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