“So anything new going on in Late Nite?” That was a casual question Jay Leno asked Jimmy Kimmel on Thursday night during his “10 @ 10” segment on the Jay Leno Show. Well Jay, you are all well too aware of what is going on in the world of late night television. NBC has made one of its biggest mistakes in its history, one that could likely irreparably damage the reputation of a show that has brought laughs into households for fifty years.
In a frantic bid to get ratings back up to pre June 2009 levels, NBC has pushed its newest host of the “Tonight Show” franchise, Conan O’Brien, after only seven months on the job out the door so that it can put the man who hosted it for seventeen years back behind its desk. All that said, this is a risky move that has more of a chance at blowing up in NBC’s face than it does to save its late night life.
NBC is gambling on the fact that its former “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” followers are going to flock back to their televisions at 11:35pm to welcome him again. It is true that the ratings may slightly increase for the first couple of shows as everyone will want to see what the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” part two is going to look like. However, after the opening week I feel that the “Tonight Show” will see a ratings drop like nothing experienced before. And if O’Brien starts up his own version of the “Tonight Show” on a competing network within the next eight or nine months Leno may find himself on a sinking ship with no life raft.
By allowing a valuable member of the late night circuit at NBC for the last sixteen years to walk out the door NBC has sent a clear message to its viewers that it has no heart or soul. The fact that it only gave O’Brien seven months to boost his ratings shows how unfair they have been. If people can remember that back in 1992 when Leno took over for Johnny Carson, his own show was threatened when NBC wanted to move David Letterman from his late night spot to the “Tonight Show” to keep him from going to CBS. Perhaps back then NBC had somewhat of a heart because they allowed Leno to prove himself rather than haul him off the air just to please Letterman. If they could let Letterman go then they should be able to let Jay go. Conan has proven himself to the network in his sixteen years and it’s a downright shame that they are letting him slip away just to keep a man who used to be on the top of his game around with no promises that he will get back to the top of his game.
Conan O’Brien was simply not given enough time to establish himself and he was being asked to swim in a turbulent ocean with one arm tied behind his back. His lead in audience from the local news was very weak because of the weak lead in to the local news from the Jay Leno Show. Had NBC’s primetime experiment not blown up in its face, O’Brien would most likely have been able to capture a bigger audience with a better lead in.
What NBC should have done is let Leno go. Jay Leno is a great comedian and I’m not saying he isn’t, but he had his run! He did his best and he tried to lead in primetime but he failed and in my opinion he should have got out while he was on top and left the network completely when he passed the torch to O’Brien in June 2009. If NBC executive Jeff Zucker had a brain he would have cut Jay loose. It was Leno’s show that failed miserably and not Conan’s, but in the twisted world of NBC Conan had to pay the price for another man’s failure who is most likely going to fail yet again when he regains the reigns of the “Tonight Show” bringing that show down with him.
So after the winter Olympics are finished and the buzz around this late night shuffle is over NBC is going to realize that it made a fatal mistake when Jay Leno can’t stop the “Tonight Show” from sinking because of the hole that NBC has blown in its side.