Oh NBC, what would we do without you? We’d have nothing fun to talk about, that’s for sure.
When the New York Times gets on the late night bandwagon, suddenly rumors are much closer to fact. It’s all but apparent now that Jimmy Fallon is taking over The Tonight Show, and in New York. All that’s missing is an official announcement. No, this isn’t Conangate all over again, and I’ll tell you why.
I was one of those vocal, seething on-line fans raising a fuss a few years ago in defense of Conan O’Brien when NBC decided to pull the rug out from under him and give Jay Leno his 11:35 slot back. I thought giving Jay Leno a 10pm show every night was idiotic, but ratings challenged networks do desperate things. They wanted a younger demographic for The Tonight Show, but it took them five years to force Jay Leno to step down, only to find he was still strong and didn’t want to go quietly. Giving him 10 pm and Conan O’Brien 11:35 pm was the scenario of having their cake and eating it too. It was also saving then tightwad president Jeff Zucker a ton of money.
That mother Zucker didn’t consider one crucial factor – the lower ratings from Jay Leno’s show, which he had predicted but didn’t mind because it would cost less, would totally crush the affiliates in terms of ratings for local news 11:00 pm broadcasts. Many affiliates saw their rankings dip from first to third after Leno’s show started so they banded together and led a revolt. They not only wanted Jay Leno off at 10 pm, they wanted him back at 11:35 pm because Conan O’Brien wasn’t performing. While it’s true The Tonight Show was lagging, under different circumstances it would have been given the time to build. These weren’t those times.
To think, NBC’s actual solution to O’Brien was to have Leno’s ratings challenged 10 pm show moved to 11:35, make it a half hour, and push The Tonight Show back to 12:05. This was clearly a network that backed themselves in a corner and couldn’t get out. Granted banging your head against the wall isn’t the best solution either, but that’s what happened.
Conan O’Brien when analyzing that proposal thought of poor Jimmy Fallon, who was the biggest victim in this scenario. If he agreed to that, Fallon’s Late Night would have been pushed to 1:05, aka the angry loners, insomniacs, and alcoholics time slot. He said no. He walked away with a large severance check, and Leno got his show back.
Aside from this being a complete and legendary PR nightmare, NBC’s despicable actions in this case were all based on money. Jay Leno was in a huge, multi-year contract and it was more expensive to break his contract than Conan O’Brien’s. NBC even cut Leno’s budget busting salary in 2012 fifty percent, from $30 million to $15 million. The guy still wouldn’t budge. So, fast forward to 2014.
There’s a harsh reality that’s been around in entertainment a long, long time. Youth wins. Jay Leno is 62 years old, and his Vegas style act is ideal for the older generation, but those aren’t the people that NBC needs to win over right now. They need to attract younger viewers that are going to watch their other shows, because nobody is watching them right now. They had this exact problem back in 2009 during Conangate, but obviously they weren’t unable to work through that properly. They also have to stay one step ahead of the competition and protect one of the few franchises they’ve got left that keeps their legacy (Today and Saturday Night Live being the others).
Let’s face it, NBC isn’t CBS. The latter is a first place network, and they thrive on their niche of older viewers. Aging David Letterman and his third place in the demo, and second place in the ratings, is just fine for them. Letterman’s contract is up in 2014, but if he stays on, CBS is happy. They aren’t looking to capture that youth demo like ABC did by moving Jimmy Kimmel to 11:35. NBC though can’t afford to be content with number one in viewers (by a lot) and a small victory in the demo (in jeopardy). They have to think of the future, and to preserve something that’s been in the tops of the ratings for six decades now.
I personally haven’t watched a minute of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show since he took over, both times. He’s not my style. He was a perfect successor to Johnny Carson however, but even Carson knew when it was time to step down. Jay Leno is a workaholic that would never give up his job. When Leno took over in 1992 demo ratings weren’t the driving factor, overall ratings were. Times and circumstances have changed, and they aren’t in Leno’s favor. He’s in this situation because he’s on a low rated network that sees his contributions as more expensive than valuable. They don’t need him because the future is sitting there at 12:30. A network that may be number one in late night today, but tomorrow looks oh so different. NBC is very, very worried about ABC, and it should be.
What about Jimmy Fallon though? Is he the answer? Duh, yes! At 38, he’s ideal. For one, because of his Saturday Night Live roots, he has far more broader an appeal to audiences than Conan O’Brien did. He is liked by young and old. His show is quirky, innovative, fun, and pleasant to watch. Not to mention Jimmy Fallon is very funny without being polarizing. My elderly parents love him, and they are CBS’ bread and butter.
By moving the Tonight Show to New York, NBC would be correcting the one massive mistake they made with Conan O’Brien. They should have never made O’Brien move to California. What made Late Night a truly extraordinary show, for David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Fallon is the New York setting. Throw it in laid back California and it would have never worked. When David Letterman moved to CBS, he stayed in New York. He knew that’s where he belonged. As much as I love Conan O’Brien and watch his show on TBS, there’s always been something missing since he left New York. That’s probably why his return to New York episodes are among my favorites from the Conan show. It is truly the town for his late night style. What worked for Johnny Carson back in 1972 clearly doesn’t work for everyone.
Fallon also makes sense because Jimmy Kimmel’s late night show takes place in Hollywood, right on Hollywood Blvd. Being stuck on NBC’s studio backlot in Burbank doesn’t provide quite the same flare. Fallon’s New York based show would provide the perfect contrast, not to mention give him a chance to stand out from the competition.
Jay Leno in the history of his run at The Tonight Show has always taken pot shots at NBC, and recent events are nothing different. However, given the light of the new rumors, they’ve taken on more significance and buzz. Laughter is the best medicine, even in the most atrocious situations, so let Leno have his chance to vent. He’s earned it. I wish Jay Leno well, but now it’s truly the time to step away, even though the ridiculous part is this will be dragging on for at least another year or more. NBC just better do everything they can this time to assure the transition goes smoothly, but there’s still plenty of time to screw all this up. They know all of us sharks are just chomping for another late night fiasco, and they’ve always fed us so well.