Saturday, January 23, 2010

Everything Goes (Mostly) Back To Normal

Now that Conan O'Brien has aired his final Tonight Show, late night television will soon return to its previous state, except with Jimmy Fallon in place of Conan.

I don't watch late night programming. I haven't watched with any regularity since Letterman went to CBS. In fact, it seems the only time I watch is when someone hosts their last show. (I've seen Carson, Letterman, and now Conan's last NBC shows. I also saw Dennis Miller's last show, which has nothing to do with this, but...last show.)

I'll say upfront that I don't like Jay Leno; I really don't think he's funny. I think Conan and Letterman are funny, but their shows air when I'm catching up on all the primetime shows I missed during the night, so I don't watch them either. I have no horses in this race. And I suspect that a lot of people don't either. Yet they're very quick to blame Leno for this whole mess.

As I mentioned, I am not a Leno fan, but, as was the case with the post directly under this one, I'm going to prove that I'm a sucker for lost causes and plead Leno's side on this one.

Basically, the facts of the case are this: Five years ago, NBC re-signed Conan O'Brien, with the promise that O'Brien would get The Tonight Show in 2009. Leno, being a good company man, agreed to step aside.

Flash forward to 2009. Leno's Tonight Show run is done; Conan is poised to ascend the throne. All seems pretty straight-forward, right?

It was, except for one small problem. Actually, a pretty fucking huge problem: Leno was still number one in late night and really had no plans on retiring, much to the chagrin of NBC, which had suspected he would. NBC realized, five years too late, that losing a top-rated program that was still vital to another network would be a problem. So, they canceled five hours of primetime programming to make room for Jay so that they could also honor their deal with Conan.

And of course it turned out to be a failure. Everyone predicted it would, And not just Leno's new show, but Conan's Tonight Show run was a flop as well. So, NBC was forced to eat crow and put everything back the way it was, showing Conan the door in the process.

This is where everyone blames Leno. "Oh, Jay failed and wanted The Tonight Show back, so they fired Conan." What people who say nonsense like this fail to realize that television is all about ratings, and if you don't have the ratings, you get shown the door.

You see, this whole mess is a very simple game of numbers. Let's say, for example, that the Leno version of The Tonight Show drew four million viewers on a nightly basis. Let's also say, for argument's sake, that Conan drew a million viewers on his post-Leno Late Night show. Now, let's say that when Leno moves into primetime, he brings his entire viewership with him, and, because there's more viewers in primetime, picks up an additional million. So, Leno now has five million viewers, which would be great in late night, but is pathetic up against primetime shows that draw 15-20 million. Same thing for Conan. If he brings his entire viewership and gains a million by moving earlier, he'd have his best ratings ever, but he'd still be two million viewers short of what Leno drew. So, two somewhat-new shows failed, and the one that failed the worst, which was Conan's, got canceled.

Every fall, dozens of new shows premiere on TV. If they don't get ratings, they get canceled, even if they've aired only one episode or a whole season. Hell, CBS will cancel a show if it fails to finish in the Top 15. The same is true of late night. Remember Magic Johnson's late night show? Or Chevy Chase's? No? You can't be blamed if you don't, as both only aired for a couple of months before being canceled. The same was true for Conan. He was on for seven months, lost half of The Tonight Show's audience, and regularly finished last in his timeslot. It doesn't matter if you really like Conan and really hate Leno. Conan's show failed. And NBC killed it and gave The Tonight Show back to Leno.

This is another point that's a point of ire for Conan fans. "Well, Jay's show was a failure too. Why does Conan have to suffer for that?" Yes, Leno was a primetime. On The Tonight Show, he was number one. Of course NBC is going to keep the guy who was able to beat Letterman and put him back on The Tonight Show. Because losing to Letterman is not an option for NBC. And putting Conan back after The Tonight Show really isn't an option, since Jimmy Fallon is doing as well as Conan did in that timeslot.

And of course Jay is going to take the show back. What's he going to say, "No, I actually enjoy finishing last in five different time slots"? NBC offered him the show he was number one on, and he took it. He's not dumb. Business is business.

What it all comes down to is that this whole thing is not Jay Leno's fault. If you want to blame someone, blame NBC, which made an incredibly stupid mistake, backpedaled like crazy to fix it, and fucked Conan O'Brien in the process. Did Jay take advantage of the situation? Why wouldn't he? Other than Conan's fans hating him, there's no downside for him. He's still on TV, doing what he loves, back in the timeslot where he was number one. And he won't have to worry about destroying Conan's career, because Conan will get a show somewhere else and succeed or fail on his own merits and not upon those of his predecessor.

So, if you hate Leno, now you'll have to hate him in late night. Just don't blame him for this whole mess.

No comments: