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Leno Removed from Tonight Show…Redux

Filed under: Television — Charlie Summers @ 1:07 am

If this whole kerfuffle has felt to you a little bit like deja vu all over again, you aren’t alone. NBC has, for the second time this century, fired the host from its only successful daypart (late-night), replacing said host with a younger, blander version. So for a minute, let’s look at some of the myths that seem to be making the rounds about the last time and this newest transition…

NBC Needs Younger Late-Night Viewers

There aren’t younger late-night viewers. Conan’s run at The Tonight Show tanked because for all the vocal nonsense from the “Team Conan” crowd, they weren’t actually watching the show when it aired. That coveted 18-34 doesn’t spend time watching late-night television, at least no more than they can pick up the next day at work on YouTube. Conan is getting peanuts for ratings at TBS now, but considering TBS doesn’t get much for ratings any time of the day, they don’t care.

And remember, these late-night shows (please don’t call them “variety shows,” they aren’t as anyone who remembers the real “variety shows” can attest) are dirt-cheap to make. Talent gets scale for appearances, fewer and fewer staff is requires as cameras and sound become more and more computerized, and even the headliner doesn’t get paid near what hosts did in the halcyon days of Johnny Carson. The idea is that anyone can make a profit at 11:30pm or later…lord, networks are now running poker games overnight, and if there’s anything more boring than golf to watch, it’s poker.

NBC Needs a Change

No argument here, but changing management would be a better move. Consider that everything NBC has changed in the last decade has been an unmitigated disaster. Late-night ratings suffered irrecoverably after the 2004 Tonight Show succession debacle, yet Leno still managed to maintain first place in the smaller viewer pool available. NBC’s prime-time lineup is a disaster (seriously, name one NBC prime-time show you religiously watch), and their ham-handed mucking with the Today show killed their previously-unassailable lead in the morning day-part. So since late-night was their one profitable number-one time of day, they decided to shoot themselves in the chest and screw around with that one, too.

Like I said the last time this happened, change the management already.

Leno’s Prime-Time Program Was a Disaster

The media in this newest transition harps that Leno’s prime-time show “failed,” that it, “brought dismal ratings,” that it was a complete disaster for NBC.

Er…no, at least not as it was planed. NBC actually expected to lose ratings share, making up for it with the less-expensive nature of The Jay Leno Show and actually expected to increase its profit margins on that hour. And for its entire existence, the show met or beat NBC’s own ratings projections. By the initial projections set up by NBC, the program was actually wildly successful!

The real disaster was NBC not anticipating what those expected lower ratings were going to do to the local station’s lead-in to the local news, which is the “cash cow” of the network affiliate. But blaming Leno for meeting or exceeding NBC’s own projections is wildly unfair. The Jay Leno Show was as profitable for the network as the network expected it to be…it was just a massive failure for the locals, who the NBC execs didn’t consider at all in their initial projections. Blame the chuckleheads at NBC for not seeing the obvious effect a cheap prime-time show at 10:00pm would have on its affiliates. (Had they run the show nightly at 8:00pm instead, they would have reaped the perceived and projected benefits they anticipated without killing their affiliates. But they would have hurt their own 9:00 shows, so of course they didn’t dream of making that move…)

But then, The Jay Leno Show wasn’t the “experiment” they pretended it to be, either…it was nothing more than a violent over-reaction to their own terror that Leno, then on-top and unassailable at The Tonight Show, would jump to another network’s late-night slot and crush them the day his contract expired. Having fired the guy, they decided to try anything to keep him tied to the Peacock network, no matter how silly. People who blame Leno for ousting O’Brein don’t understand the way television works…O’Brein was promoted by NBC who fired Leno, then the execs got cold feet and came up with a “Hail Mary” pass to try desperately to keep both - Leno at 10:00pm, Conan at 11:35pm. When things blew up in the 10-o’clock hour, they then made a simple yet cold monetary calculation and decided they were better off with Leno at the head of late-night and so removed O’Brein whose Tonight Show ratings were dropping fast. The execs, and their inability to make and stand on a decision, is why Conan became a wealthy man and Leno is still at The Tonight Show. Blaming Leno is a cheap joke for comedians, but is simply not fair to the guy.

Back to this year’s firing/hiring, I actually like Jimmy Fallon (unlike Seth Myers, who may be a fair writer but is a terrible performer), but I’m confidently predicting his late-night numbers will fall from Leno’s just as Conan’s did, and will shortly settle to only a little higher than his existing Late Nite ratings. Having the show in New York will limit the talent pool a bit, but there won’t be a lot of people to actually notice. And this time, those of us who do occasionally watch late night television won’t even have our Jay Leno Show recordings up play at 11:35pm…gotta admit, with that system it was hard to realize Jay had moved at all.

Truth is, late-night network television is becoming as irrelevant as any other network daypart. In this house, we time-shift practically everything, and stream much of our viewing from the Internet…local stations, even cable networks, are becoming less and less relevant with each passing day. Maybe it’s time we all accepted the plain fact that the old metrics just don’t apply any more, and that late-night television is pretty much as dead as the rest of the network’s lineup. Give the youtube kiddies a few laugh lines, and quit worrying about it.

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