Sunday, January 10, 2010

Late Night With God Knows Who

Jay Leno is developing a reputation as the IED of feature television programming at NBC. His and the network’s decision to switch his brand of comedy from late-night to prime-time destroyed the chances of several provocative series, which had to be canceled to accommodate the jut-jawed juggernaut.

What’s developed in recent days, and confirmed tonight by NBC brass, proves the ability of the Leno death star to blow up everything around it.

By now you know about “The Jay Leno Show,” NBC’s incessantly hyped and ballyhooed bid to rewrite the rules of prime-time television, by bringing a known comedic quantity into America’s living rooms in prime-time — effectively shifting Leno’s late-night format to earlier in the evening (at 10 p.m.). NBC’s move was hailed as revolutionary; James Poniewozik of Time Magazine wrote an essay breathlessly titled “Jay Leno Is the Future of TV. Seriously.”

Poniewozik wrote last September: “If The Jay Leno Show succeeds — where succeeding means not getting more viewers than the competition but simply increasing NBC's profit margin — it suggests a TV future in which ambitious dramas become the stuff of boutique cable, while the broadcasters become a megaphone for live events and cheap nonfiction.”

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The viewing public was decidedly underwhelmed. The “Leno” show was touted as the perfect lead-in to the local news affiliates around the country. That’s been a connection Leno has been gamely trying to make at the end of his program, prodding his viewers to stay where you are, braying “YOUR LOCAL NEWS STARTS RIGHT NOW!” But the public wasn’t having it; the “Leno” show was largely ignored by viewers almost from the beginning. And the affiliates weren’t having it; “Leno” was a poor lead-in to the late locals, who resisted the Leno trial period after its sagging ratings pulled eyeballs away, with the advertising dollars that follow them.

Leno’s show attracts about 5.8 million viewers; some of CBS’ scripted features double or triple that. CBS’s “The Mentalist” pulls down about 17.5 million viewers. It’s something of an apples-to-oranges comparison; “The Mentalist” airs once a week, Leno’s on five nights a week, so an imbalance of the raw numbers makes sense. But regardless, the perception has been that the bloom is off the Leno rose.

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Meanwhile, Conan O’Brien has been gamely trying to grow into his seven-month-long position as host of “The Tonight Show,” broadcast at 11:35. It couldn’t have been good news, then, when O’Brien (about the same time as everyone in America) was going to be asked to move over to accommodate Leno — to give up the coveted 11:35 slot, and move “The Tonight Show” back to 12:05.


It gets worse: Not only O’Brien would be affected. In order to accommodate him, NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” would be required to move back to 1:05 a.m., a plan that would seem to make viewership in the wee small hours of the morning — InformercialWorld! — even more precious than it already is.


Both O’Brien and Leno have made the most of it, commenting on the situation in their monologues and skits. O’Brien outlined a possible scenario to resolve the impasse: “NBC is going to throw me and Jay in a pit with sharpened sticks. The one who crawls out alive gets to leave NBC.”

But O’Brien’s not happy — having transplanted himself, his wife and children, his staff and his perspective from one coast to another less than a year ago, you could hardly blame him — and the vultures of Murdoch may be circling. Fox (the network with no late-night presence on weeknights and Wanda Sykes on Saturdays — for now) has reportedly offered O’Brien sanctuary, if it comes to that. The situation, murky right now, may be settled later this week.

“As much as I’d like to tell you we have a done deal, that’s not true,” said NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin at the Television Critics Association press tour, on Sunday. “The talks are ongoing. [But] I hope and expect, before the Olympics begin, we will have everything set. I can’t imagine we won’t.”

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What’s clear already, though, is the chaos and lack of vision reflected in the whole Leno “experiment.” It wasn’t discussed much in the canonization of the new Leno comedy business model, but one of the main reasons for NBC’s agreeing to shifting him to 10 p.m. was no doubt purely economic.

In order for Leno to go on the air at 10 p.m., several NBC scripted televisions series airing at or near that time had to move over.

“Life.” “Southland.”

“Medium.” “Kath and Kim.” “My Name Is Earl.”

Ratings will invariably be blamed, but directly or indirectly, all of ‘em got offed to make room in the schedule for a comedian whose funniest days are in the rear-view mirror, a comedian whose reach into the emergent younger demographic NBC needs to be competitive, or even viable, is shaky at best.

“All audiences have value, but the 18-to-49 audience has more value,” John Rash, senior vice president of the Campbell-Mithun ad agency, told The New York Times in July, in an interview about O’Brien’s successful reach into that cherished demographic. “You will make higher profits if you win with that audience.”

True, even the “Tonight” franchise is a victim of a widely broadened television landscape and an increasingly diverse population. Right now, “The Tonight Show” gets about 2.5 million viewers nightly.

But the raw numbers don’t tell the whole story. They can’t yet, the numbers are too new. It’s a sign of the Peacock’s impatience that they’re ready to pull the plug on Conan at 11:35 after his “Tonight” brand has been on the air for seven months, while Leno was locked in amber at 11:35 for 17 years.

And you have to wonder why in the three years between the announcement of Leno’s departure from the “Tonight” show and when it actually happened, why Leno was pulled out of the 11:35 “Tonight Show” slot in the first place. Leno’s “Tonight Show” consistently led in the ratings, even besting CBS’s David Letterman. The best time to have made the current switch NBC’s now contemplating was before it was even made. O’Brien would have been more agreeable to a change if something was decided before that change was seven months a reality.

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And in its bid to rewrite the rules, NBC has abided by the oldest and dumbest rule in the book: the need to be in a hurry. “Life” and “Southland,” among the others, were shows just beginning to find their mark. Smartly written, intelligently and realistically cast and populated, they were a sign of a network willing to reach outside its institutional comfort zone.

Boom. Leno had the ear of NBC brass, who had the ears of the risk-averse accountants who knew then and know now that Leno five nights a week from one set on one soundstage in front of one audience would cost tens of millions of dollars less than five scripted series, no matter how good they were, no matter how much time they needed to germinate an audience, no matter how much they pointed to the future of the network and its audience, instead of the past.

And ultimately, we got where we are right now: a once-dominant force in comedy, dramatic series and late-night, apparently at generational odds with itself.

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Contrary to Poniewozik’s assessment, scripted dramas needn’t be the death knell for a network’s bottom line; the other networks in the ratings hunt prove that every week. When CBS can find and develop shows like “The Mentalist,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men,” it’s obvious that reports of the demise of the scripted series is greatly exaggerated.

After NBC canceled “Medium” early last year, an opportunistic CBS picked it up, gave it the patience it deserved and the money it required to flourish. Result: In November, that NBC castoff helped CBS regain control of Friday-night viewer numbers (8.2 million), and gain a decent lead in the ratings. One week in December, CBS' series repeats beat NBC's fresh feature programming.

When NBC can abandon shows of proven quality for a roll of the dice, it’s obvious that the Peacock is moulting in a curiously self-defeating way.

Events over the next week should be interesting — stay tuned. No really, do watch what happens. It’s likely to change overnight. God only knows who’ll turn up for long-term late-night duty at NBC. God and the lawyers.

Image credits: Leno: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters. O'Brien: NBC. O'Brien Tonight Show intertitle: © NBC/Conaco. Leno Tonight Show intertitle: © NBC/Big Dog Productions.

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