Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Leno v. Conan Situation, Explained

Ok pals, here's the scoop. There's this Team Conan, and Jimmel Kimmel destroying Leno, and a giant backlash against NBC that came up this week.

During the Haiti Earthquake, which you heard about as you were making dinner, and/or doing a thousand other things this week.

Good thing you've got a pal like me who's willing to explain it all out because I do nothing but watch TV, read about TV, write about TV (Oh, do you not get The Screening Room? You should.) and I've even made a habit of listening to TV podcasts (Does this obsession know any bounds? Not really.)

So, here's the slapdash rundown of what I like to call...


A long time ago, during the last decade or so, Conan O'Brien was asked to negotiate a contract. He said during that time, that he'd like The Tonight Show eventually. The date was set, and ink went to paper, and Jay Leno was on a highway to retirement.

Then, Jay realized he was not yet ready to give up television, and NBC realized they to were not yet ready to part with a chin attached to a man that brought in decent late night ratings. They decided to put together a show that would run Monday - Friday at 10pm.

Yes, that's right at 10pm. The time slot that traditionally goes to adult dramas, sometimes dramadies. The shows that content is not suitable for children, and you can actually watch because the kids just got to bed. NBC's 10 pm time slot is something of a favorite for me. I am looking right at you mid 90's - I'm talking about Sisters, Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order, ER. Oh man, just listing those shows makes me happy.

The 10pm time slot is not meant for talk shows like Leno's not just because it's not an adult drama though. It's a hard sell to put something that runs regularly in that slot because it's against the local 10 o'clock news. See, affiliate stations, or what you know as your local NBC station, has a different schedule than major cities. We (I live in New York City) and other major cities only get the 11:35pm news. To juggle the time difference local stations usually would just throw on a Seinfield repeat or something until The Tonight Show comes on, but with the obligation to play Jay, it messed up their news schedule.

NBC solution to this issue? Spend MILLIONS on advertising Jay at 10 pm so people have it ingrained, are ready for it, and want it.

It didn't work.

While the ratings for Leno were decent, it was too much for the affiliates to manage, sell, and keep up so they were dropping the show, and NBC was losing money.

Now, Conan on the other hand on The Tonight Show was getting slammed, because of the 10 pm show as well. There's a rhythme of television watching that is called into play here. It's all about your lead in, if you've got a broken schedule it's like playing incredibly loud metal music before a show that involves piano music. You've tuned away from NBC because 10pm doesn't have what you want/are used to - drama, and other networks are cranking up their dramatic television and getting you involved in their shows. You don't switch back to see The Tonight Show, because of a thousand other possibilities.

They knew ratings would dip with Conan because people don't like new things. It would take at least a year to hit some sort of stride with new location, set, formatting - but it was likely that Conan would find an audience.

The trouble is, Conan's audience is a demographic that is 18-45 and that demographic is watching The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report - and once again isn't switching over to NBC for The Tonight Show.

So, the odds are stacked against Conan, but there had to be a built in belief at NBC that this ratings dip would occur - and the way to bring it back would've been to leverage The Olympics in their favor and promote Conan during it.

The only problem is - Leno failed his slot. So, NBC lost a ton of money on that gamble. Now, the idea that the audience that is watching The Olympics would fall in love of Conan is another gamble. In NBC's mind, it's time to go with a sure thing - and that sure thing is Leno. Leno will bring back their ratings, and possibly bolster audience as a lead in for Conan and Fallon. The issue here is - that's the old line up. That is basically demoting Conan for not succeeding in doing his job within a 7 month period, when he should have had at least a year to attempt before shutting down and rolling back.

Why people hate Leno in this, is because he doesn't have to take this position. Leno is a man that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He has been on the air for a very long time, long enough to become a parody of himself. He seemed to support Conan's move publicly, so for him to not step up and say, "Ya know what, the 10 pm show didn't work. I am going to retire from TV and go do stand-up and play with my cars," or something similar showing support and self awareness is an issue.

Now, you can argue, Jay's just going for the job he was the best at. Sure, he did great in that show, but he had a rough patch after Johnny left, too. The Letterman/Leno ratings battle was a fierce one and not always the best for his ratings, but he found his voice, and audience and eventually did great. But to leave a job you achieved greatness at, try something else, and then just go back - seems a little ridiculous. Especially when you don't need the money, and the person who has that job now moved his entire life, family, and all the people that worked for him away from New York and out to LA.

If you don't live in New York, you might not understand how huge that move is. It may seem like a great move up to some. Warm weather, fabulous lifestyles of the rich and famous and what not, but to a New Yorker it's a huge lifestyle change. You go from being you v. the elements - because in NY everyone pretty much takes subways or is generally just outdoors more in horrible weather than most people in America - to being in your car going everywhere. Also, anyone who's ever had a family with kids and had to move understands that going from one place to another can be a strain on the family.

But, I digress - Conan and Leno, where are they now? It seems to be a stale-mate at the moment. Leno seems to be winning NBC's favor to go back to The Tonight Show, and Conan seems to be stuck in a contract that will not allow him to work as a late night talk show host on another network.

In the current American job market, a lot of people can somewhat sympathize with being out of a job, being pushed out of a job, and just the overall despair that unemployment can bring. It's also horribly upsetting to see men with millions of dollars seem upset about job loss. At the end of all this, we know that Conan O'Brien will work again. He is a fabulously talented and a well known personality. His staff will probably be fine as well because the quality of the show is actually not in the issue.

The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien is well received by many critics, especially comedians. Conan's sharp wit and wonderful self awareness of his awkwardness is something that comedians embrace. It's not like the move from Late Night to The Tonight Show tarnished his talents.

Leno on the other hand, did have a quality issue. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno was wonderfully formatted, and while middle of the road in terms of comedy risk - it was funny. The Jay Leno Show on the other hand, was really cheesey. It was the Brady Bunch Variety Hour of television spin-offs. The quality of the show went down, and the humor went from middle of the road to pandering.

Both men though, have options at the end of the day. NBC has options as well, but what exactly happens next is subject to debate as well. There was a story on everyone's favorite pay-for-it journalism site, TMZ, that said that Leno has The Tonight Show back and Conan is out on the streets unable to do another late night show for now.

NBC denied this story.

BUT - NBC just bought @BreakingNews which is a twitter feed that used to relay stories from various news outlets at lightening fast speed. Seriously, I used to just follow it so I could bolster my "I knew it before you" in a news conversation. Since being bought by NBC it has turned into the NBC news twitter feed. It is obvious that all the stories are coming from MSNBC and other NBC affiliates, not just because it's a little slower (@nytimes is actually whooping them lately) but also because NBC is sited on most of the @breakingnews feeds.

How this plays in is- @BreakingNews submitted the TMZ story to the feed, my guess is there's a lot of truth, maybe not all truth, but at least some truth behind that story. If not, why would they tweet it?

Currently, it looks as though Conan is leaving, and Leno will get The Tonight Show back.

That's all I know about that situation folks. I hope this helped clarify some of it for you. I'll be back next week with more TV news. Till then make sure you follow me on the twitter -
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