I am somewhat puzzled by the fact that Jay Leno has apparently turned out to be the villain in NBC’s debacle over the Tonight Show.
It seems to me that the only villain here is the NBC decision makers and I suspect they’re less villain than incompetent.
How did this all play out?
1. Five years ago Leno’s contract comes due with NBC at the same time that Conan O’Brien is making noises about leaving the Late Night Show and taking his act somewhere else. NBC doesn’t want to lose O’Brien and see him go to another network, so they promise him the Tonight Show in 5 years if he stays where he is. O’Brien agrees.
2. The NBC execs tell Leno that they will give him a 5 year contract and at the end of the contract – even though his show is currently number one in late night – he has to leave the Tonight Show and let O’Brien take over that time slot. They apparently think that by the end of the 5 years, Leno’s rating will have slipped away.
3. Leno agrees, and at the end of his 5 year contract – even though he is still holding the Tonight Show in its #1 spot – Leno steps down and turns the show over to O’Brien. Leno actually steps away before his contract is over.
4. Leno asks to be released from his contact with NBC but NBC decides now that it doesn’t want to lose him either, knowing that he will probably be picked up by another network and become a competitor to their existing shows.
5. NBC then asks Leno to step into the prime time 10 PM time slot and do his show there. Leno accepts, even though he must know it is a risky move to try and put a talk show in that time slot. But NBC says they have done the research and besides, it is far cheaper for them to run than a drama or a sitcom. The affiliates aren’t happy, but NBC thinks it will work.
In hindsight, there are people second guessing Leno’s decision to accept this show. They seem to feel that he should have refused the offer from NBC. But why would he? NBC wouldn’t release him from his contract, have offered him the challenge of trying to make his show work in prime time, enabled him to keep his staff employed and have ensured him that their research says that the concept will work. Why would he feel compelled to turn that down?
6. Now seven months down the road, Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show is down on the rating scale, having lost Leno’s #1 position. Leno hasn’t captured a big enough market at 10 PM – even though the show is making a profit for the network - and the affiliates are about to rebel. Now NBC has another problem. Forced to cancel Leno’s show or lose affiliates, they have the option of dumping Leno and keeping O’Brien, who doesn’t have the ratings they want. But NBC, true to its corporate self, wants to have it both ways. They want to find some way to keep both men rather than lose one of them -either one – to some competitor. So they come up with their next brilliant idea.
7. NBC comes to Leno and tells him that they are thinking about giving him a half hour show at 11:35 PM and moving O’Brien and the Tonight Show back to 12:05 AM.
If Leno made a mistake anywhere in this process, it was here. He should have picked up the phone, called O’Brien and said, “what the hell’s going on here? Are you OK with this”? But he didn’t. He says he asked if Conan was alright with this and the network said that he would be, and he left it at that. A lot of his own problems might have been alleviated if he had just made that call.
Conan’s reply to NBC was, in effect, stick it in your ear and it all went further downhill from there.
8. NBC drops Conan O’Brien from the Tonight Show and asks Jay Leno to step back in and Leno accepts. Now Conan is the martyr and Jay is the villain.
But if NBC had confidence in O’Brien, they would have capitulated at that point, left him in the 11:35 slot and started negotiations with Leno to release him from his contract. The network had the option at that point of who they wanted to keep and who they wanted to let go. They made the decision that, rightly or wrongly, Leno was the one they needed to keep.
So should Leno have turned down their offer to return to the Tonight Show? A lot of people seem to think that he should have. By why would he? This was now a business decision, both on NBC’s and Leno’s part.
Leno gets to return as the host of the highly desirable Tonight Show franchise and he gets to keep his long time staff employed. Should he have walked away from the offer in some kind of high moral dudgeon? He could have done that, especially with how he had been jerked around by the network brass, being moved from his job while he was leading the field in the ratings and then being put into a high risk time slot with only 4 months, as it turned out, to make the show work.
But I think that Leno recognized that there was no logic in doing that. He would have put his staff on the unemployment rolls and for what? Would NBC have kept Conan anyway? Maybe and maybe not. Or would the Tonight Show franchise have simply crashed and burned? I think he made the only decision that made sense for him.
The question now will be whether he can return the show to its former glory. NBC has done him no favours by giving him back the chair. If he takes it back to #1 he will be a hero, but if he can’t bring the ratings back up he will be chewed up and spit out by the critics – which in this case is a good chunk of the North American viewing public. He has a major job ahead of him and I am sure that he knows that all too well.
But for all of those noble people out there who think that Leno should have gotten on his high horse and ridden off into the twilight, is that what you would do if you were offered your dream job at the miserable sum of $30 million a year?
Yeah, sure. Get a life.