So here, as I understand it, is the situation regarding NBC’s late night schedule: The Jay Leno Show has been canceled at 10 P.M., and the network’s next move was to give Leno half an hour at 11:35, and push Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show back to 12:05 A.M. — and, presumably, though it’s hardly been mentioned with all the talk of Jay and Conan, also push Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night to 1:05. Conan tossed a wrench into the works yesterday when he announced he would rather resign than see The Tonight Show moved from its traditional slot following the local news. It’s quite a pickle for last-place NBC, which launched both Conan’s revamped Tonight and Leno’s primetime show with great fanfare only a few months ago. I haven’t watched any late night television for years, which I presume is the reason I have not been contacted for advice by any of the involved parties, but it just so happens I have the perfect solution to this late night clusterfuck.
Move The Jay Leno Show to 1:35 and leave everything else just as it is.
In the statement he released yesterday, Conan wrote of his hope that his Tonight Show might have been given the chance to work out the kinks and find an audience — the same chance, let’s remember, that Jay Leno was given when he took over the timeslot from Johnny Carson in 1992. Sure, Leno’s Tonight Show was in first place (though God only knows why) for eleven straight years, but it was on the air for seventeen. Leno finished a reliable second to David Letterman’s Late Show for the first three years of their head-to-head competition, and didn’t establish himself as the consistent leader in the ratings until a few years after that.
NBC allowed Jay Leno to lose to Letterman at 11:30 for six years. Now Conan O’Brien is being kicked out of the slot after seven months. Obviously, it’s not the exact same situation. When Leno took over Tonight in ’92 the combined audience for network late night was much larger than it is today. And for much of Leno’s run NBC was the first-place network, providing ratings powerhouses like Seinfeld, Friends, and ER as primetime lead-ins for The Tonight Show. With the rest of its schedule doing so well, NBC could afford Leno the slack he needed to find his footing and grow to thrive. Nowadays, not so much.
Leno’s primetime show has been a disaster, not for the network so much as for its local affiliates, who have reported significant drop-offs in ratings for local news since NBC turned the final hour of its weekday primetime schedule over to Leno in September. Conan’s Tonight Show is doing relatively poorly so far, finishing a distant second to Letterman — and the shitty primetime lead-in from Leno has got to be a major factor contributing to Conan’s disappointing ratings — but, so far as I know, Conan’s ratings haven’t triggered a revolt from the affiliates.
So why punish Conan O’Brien by pushing Tonight back to 12:05? The local stations are suffering from what they call the Leno Effect, not the Conan Effect, so fuck Jay Leno. The lavish contract NBC bestowed on Leno apparently doesn’t allow them to simply cancel the show this early in its run without paying some serious financial penalties, otherwise my advice would only need to be three words long: Cancel Jay Leno. Since canceling him would be too expensive, give him the 1:35 slot. I’d bet one of my balls (the left one; it’s been nothing but trouble to me anyway) that there’s a penalty in the contract for moving the show to that late of a timeslot, but it can’t be as expensive as the one NBC would incur for just shitcanning Leno altogether, so I say bite the bullet and go for it. If we were lucky, Leno would have enough self-respect to refuse the move, NBC could release him from his contract, Jay could take his guaranteed downside and go home to Mavis and the fleet of old cars, and Carson Daly could continue to toil in anonymity doing whatever the hell he does.
Despite never being a fan of his act, I don’t blame Jay Leno for this mess. I blame NBC, who should never have created The Jay Leno Show in the first place. Not only did they deny work to hundreds of writers, directors, actors and crew who would have produced the five one-hour dramas that would have aired Monday through Friday at 10 in Leno’s absence, they hobbled Conan right out of the gate by giving a high-profile primetime show to his immediate predecessor. Sure, Jay should have gone gracefully into retirement like he’d been saying he wanted to do for years, but I can’t fault him for taking the crazy money NBC threw at him to stay.
I can sure as hell fault NBC for throwing it, though, and I do. The best thing they can do now is to get rid of the show that’s the cause of the problem — The Jay Leno Show — and give Conan O’Brien and his Tonight Show the same opportunity they gave to Jay Leno when he debuted to underwhelming ratings and unimpressed critics in 1992.
Like I said at the top, I haven’t watched either show. Take this all for what it’s worth. I know this, though: I’d take Conan O’Brien at his worst over Jay Leno on the best day he’s ever had, and call it one hell of a bargain.