Entry #1003
8:13 AM - January 15th, 2010...
On nearly every topic I write about outside of my own life, I'm the first to say: "Just my two cents, I really have no idea." I was about to do the same for this, and then I realized I actually do have some inside-knowledge of this business, alas we forget the infamous CBS offer from the head of late night to host "Up & Adam" that was to go against Carson Daly in 2007.
That being said, what really gives me a leg-up on most with this subject is that I was addicted to late night TV in my teens and followed the politics of the Leno/Letterman feud over The Tonight Show like they were my personal friends. The movie, "Late Shift" (which is honestly one of my favorite movies of all-time), explained the whole drama (with a few creative spices I'm sure) with such flair I pray those same filmakers do it again for this go 'round. Whereas the NBC execs looked slimey before, they certainly didn't look this stupid. I have been absolutely glued to every single aspect of this, especially because in 2007 when I was gonna start "Up & Adam", my heart was absolutely set on somehow parlaying it into "Late Night" on NBC as they had yet to announch a successor to Conan. And btw, is it not unreal how Carson Daly is never mentioned... ever in all this recent hoopla? I swear that man has naked pics of an exec. Seriously. I haven't the slightest idea how he stays on the air. Years and years and years.
But this entry is not about opinion, and that's the entire point. You want my opinion on the hosts? Johnny Carson was king, and by such a long mile there will be nothing close in my lifetime. The only person I ever get that "perfect" feeling from is Jon Stewart, but clearly his show is completely different. Johnny's mastery of the flow of that show, how to deal with guests, how to deal with Ed, was so remarkable, I find myself watching clips on YouTube and 3 hours pass. The rest? I wrote about it while studying for "Up & Adam" in '07. Again, this is not about who I like or who I think is funny or deserves what. This is simply about trying to cut through the facts, which I barely see anyone doing without bias.
When they announced Conan would take over the tonight show in 2004 (yes it was literally 5 years before), everyone understood why; tNBC wanted o avoid the disaster that '92-93 was when Johnny retired. However there was one problem, Leno was #1 and had been for 9 straight years. (Letterman infamously beat Leno for 90 straight weeks when he went to CBS until the Hugh Grant interview on Leno, and Leno never looked back). The real question was, when the time came, would NBC really pull Leno if he was #1?
Cut to mid-2008, NBC was getting cold feet. The same issues that came up in the Letterman/Leno debate resurfaced. Could the 12:30 guy (now Conan) really work at 11:30? Leno's ratings were spectacular when he filled in for Johnny Carson in the early 90's which is why they eventually went with him. This time however, it seemed like suicide to pull your #1 guy off the air, so at the end of '08, they announced they were trying an experiment: putting him on at 10pm.
Amazingly, it worked for NBC exactly as they thought it would. The ratings were lower than the previous primetime shows, but it cost them so much less than 5 one hour dramas, they were in the black... local affiliates however were getting crushed. Local news relies so heavily on their lead-ins that in only 4 months of the Jay Leno Show they dropped over 30%. That's more than stunning. NBC nearsightedly underestimated their local affiliate structure (which is the backbone of the networks) and were in some shit.
Over on the Tonight Show, Conan was getting beat by Letterman on a nightly basis. Suddenly their "cake and eat it too" mentality had neither cake or eating involed. It was a nightmare. But a nightmare of their own making, because when you kill the local affiliates by 30%, guess who else will suffer? The Tonight Show. Conan could never win. NBC took a serious risk with Leno and it destroyed their entire line-up, and may even take down the network in all honesty. There's not a lot of time left for the "line-up" model, and this may keep them at 4th until everything becomes "on-demand".
What people keep missing in all of this is that the bad guy here is neither Conan or Leno. Leno was pulled from The Tonight show after being #1 for 15 straight years. Can you imagine? Like, sweet holy hell - what do you have to do? If you read that article from 2004, there's a quote from him that showed him taking the company line, as if he was ready to retire, but do a teeny bit of research on the man, and you know he is a workaholic of epic proportions. He was just being a good "company guy" and the closer they got to 2009, you could sense in many comments that he felt pushed out.
Conan on the other hand - got the fucking Tonight Show. Only the greatest gig ever for a comedian. He knew about it FIVE YEARS before he got it. Talk about a build-up. He moves his entire crew and their families to LA and within 7 months they put Leno BACK on The Tonight Show. Why? Because their "10pm experiment" failed so badly? Woah. Woah. Seriously. It's fucked up. NBC is trying desperately to find a Delorean and just go back to 2009 and not make the switch but they can't. And trying to switch it back now is more than arrogant. I admit, it was a mistake to take Leno off the Tonight Show, but he's damaged goods now. You made your bed. You can't cut Conan (a man who has been loyal to you for nearly 20 years) after 7 months! You built this up for HALF A DECADE.
But alas, they are. They are trying to just reshuffle really quick and hope that a year from now no one will notice. Buffoons. Zucker should be fired. We'll see what happens.
Personally? If I'm Jay? I walk. I do NOT take The Tonight Show back. This is a defining moment for him, and it appears he's not seeing that. That "nice guy" image is going straight out the window. He needs to take a year off. Get out of the television spotlight for a bit. Going back to The Tonight Show is suicide because everyone is gonna be on Conan's side. He's not gonna get the bookings he got previously, and because of NBC's moves - as I said, he is damaged goods. It's a little known fact that Letterman was actually offered The Tonight Show after Leno got it, but he had to wait 18 months. Those around him said, even though he was excited, that he was no longer getting "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson", he was getting damaged goods. He realized that, and went with CBS. Someone has to tell Leno the same thing. His "Tonight Show" is gone. The prestige associated with The Tonight Show? Also gone. Once you hand it to someone for 7 months and then make a change, you've destroyed the legacy. Leno should've done the right thing and walked, and let Conan do his show.
There are of course winners in this. Namely; Letterman, Fergusen and Kimmel. And holy, holy shit did Kimmel blow me away. You may have heard he decided to do an entire show dressed up like Jay Leno, which was pretty funny... but in an effort to save face - Leno had Kimmel on his show via satellite. Awkward turned into AWESOME very quickly. Kimmel did not play along and what transpired will go down in history (mine anyway) as one of the greatest moments in late night. I will meet Jimmy some day, I will shake his hand, and I will thank him for pulling no punches. I've never seen anything like it. I actually clapped and said "oh, hell no" as I watched this.
As I tried to show this entire entry, the sides were very clear all the way until one point. That point being Jay accepting The Tonight Show AGAIN. That's when he lost me. Everything up to that point I could understand and in fact even feel sorry for. But once Jay crosses that line and sets foot back on that show (I still think he has time to pull out of the deal)... it's done. He will forever be remembered for that move and it's a shame someone close to him can't see that. I mean, I get it - it was his favorite job in the world, he had it for 17 years, did great at it, loved every aspect of it - but that era is done. It's gonna be a very different energy this time around.
Sucks though, doesn't it? I totally relate to him wanting that back. I cannot imagine how hard it would be to walk. And those who bring up money (and that he has enough) really don't get it. Give me a billion dollars... you think I stop The Journey? Uhm, no. I just have a crew around me helping me make it better. I've found what I love, and will do it forever. So did Jay. But he agreed to walk away all those years ago, and he needs to remember that.
Conan on Fox will be awfully interesting. He'll start 30 minutes early, but that won't really matter. His audience will be the Tivo crowd/internet generation. And the thing he'll get Leno won't? The nearly unanimous support of Hollywood. He will win the booking battles, which just may hand him the war.
And in a world of real wars, real tragedies, I sure do love escaping to this world for a bit. More on the real world on the 20th. One year later...