Sunday, December 27, 2009

On The First Day Of Christmas...

On the first day of Christmas my true love – television – gave to me... One Epic Fail.

And surprisingly it wasn't my total failure to write anything for the past how many months?! It was close but... well actually no, it wasn't. Because the epic fail I refer to in this article was the attempt to move Jay Leno into a five night a week prime time series. Whatever they were smoking at NBC when they came up with that one was not just illegal but dangerous to the health. The problem was that it was dangerous to the health of one of the four major television networks, and if you look back to the days of radio, the company that spawned the idea of bringing a string of stations together and forming a more powerful union called a network.

I'm not saying that the prime time Jay Leno show is a failure compared to the hype surrounding the show. It would in fact be difficult for what Leno is doing to live up to the hype. The hype was over the top. If you remember when the show was announced, well before the upfronts, the brain trust at NBC – which at the time was Jeffrey Zucker and Ben Silverman if I'm not mistaken – was saying that this one show with this great host would change the face of television. Other networks would waste their time and considerable amounts of money producing dramatic series while NBC would prosper with equal or slightly lower rating because Leno's show wouldn't be that expensive to do... and this is even factoring in the amount of money they would be paying to keep Leno and his cars in the style to which they have become accustomed. And when you consider that the media en masse bought into the NBC hype – to the point where there were articles in big media (and we're talking Time Magazine here) were pubishing articles about how Leno moving to prime time would change the face of television – it would be nearly impossible to live up to the hype. And it didn't.

The problem with the Leno show is that it hasn't even lived up to NBC's normal standards. Fact one: the show routinely finishes third in its time slot in the ratings each and every week night. Fact two: the show routinely finishes third in the 18-49 year-old demographic each and every night of the week, including on Wednesday night when ABC had been airing the now cancelled Eastwick and Tuesdays when ABC airs the "hanging on by the skin of Jerry Bruckheimer's teeth" The Forgotten. Fact three: the show is not providing as good a lead-in to the local newscasts on NBC's affiliates as just about everyone had hoped. And since the late local news is a profit center for the affiliates they are not happy, to the point where there have been preliminary rumblings that they'll stop carrying the show which in turn will affect audience and advertising revenues for NBC. Fact four: increasingly the quality of guests that Leno is able to attract seems to be in decline. It's not a radical decline but it does seem to be trending down. Fact five: Leno's ratings have not improved when the show was up against reruns. This is a big one; it was always stated by NBC in their packages about Leno that while his show might not win the time slot against new dramatic shows it would perform better against reruns because 46 out of 52 weeks would be new shows. If that's not happening, and it certainly looks as though Leno is only improving slightly against reruns and CBS reruns are winning every night Leno's new shows. We know that hasn't happened when the CBS shows were running up against NBC dramas like the Law & Order franchise and ER. Which brings us to...Fact Six: Running Leno in the third hour of primetime has forced NBC to run their more adult programming – such as the Law & Order series – in the second hour at a time when either the content has to be dialled down or it is totally unsuitable. Or, in the case of the extremely gritty police series Southland they were forced to scrap the series entirely. Southland, which has fortunately found a home on TNT, was deemed to be too extreme for the Friday second hour time slot that it was originally slated to appear in and was cancelled by NBC.

Look, I can see the machinations that were going on at NBC with the whole Leno-Conan O'Brien thing. In simple terms the network had two cakes and wasn't willing to set down either one to safely deliver one of them. When they announced Jar's retirement from the Tonight Show in 2004, the network was undoubtedly worried that they couldn't keep the popular O'Brien in the second late night slot indefinitely and if they didn't move him to the Tonight Show they'd lose him to ABC. And Jay's statement at the time, "You can do these things until they carry you out on a stretcher, or you can get out when you're still doing good," seems to indicate that he may have thought the time had come to go. If that was the case, then the transition would have been smooth, but for many people – even those who thought that if Leno wasn't, "still doing good" – thought that the workaholic Leno would come to regret deciding to step down. And of course he did, which left NBC on the horns of a dilemma. Should they break their promise to O'Brien and keep Leno on the Tonight Show for as long as he wanted to stay, in which case Conan would be out the door and over at ABC or FOX. Or should they hold Leno to his agreement, in which case Jay would have been on ABC or FOX or even the Tribune stations and presumably demolishing Conan O'Brien. So they gave Jay Leno his prime time show and hyped it to make it appear as if it were the second coming of television...which it wasn't. The net result has been bad for Jay Leno – his show is not a good fit for primetime – bad for Conan O'Brien – there's the constant feeling that he's still under Jay's shadow – and good for one man, David Letterman. Since Conan has taken over the Tonight Show ratings for Letterman's Late Show have surpassed the Tonight Show not just overall but in the major 18-49 and 18-35 demographics. And not even the revelation that Dave had, before his marriage, slept with female members of his staff had an effect on that.

I can't fault Jay Leno for the Jay Leno show as much as I probably should. The decision to put the show on the air was after all NBC's. The network was the organization that wanted to keep Jay around at any cost and given Jeff Zucker's frequent musings on abandoning the third hour of primetime putting Leno on there must has seemed like a good idea at the time. Still, if there was anyone left at NBC who had an institutional memory that extended beyond Knight Rider and Bionic Woman they might have hearkened back to the first two hosts of the Tonight Show and what they did after leaving the late night grind. Both Steve Allen and Jack Paar had primetime series on NBC after they completed their runs on the Tonight Show, although Allen's series, which was on opposite The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights, started while he was doing the late night Tonight Show. Allen's NBC primetime show ran for four years from 1956-1960 while Paar's show ran from 1963-1965 (Paar pulled the plug on the show himself). The thing about these shows is that they were both hour long shows, one night a week. While it is entirely possible that the modern television industry would not accept a live hour-long talk and comedy series one night a week they way they did – at least for a while – in the 1950s and '60s, but it would have presented an opportunity for NBC to keep Leno and give Jay a real opportunity to do superior. Just about anyone who has seen even a few minutes of Jay's current primetime show will tell you that what he's delivering isn't the quality of comedy that he's capable of.