More on the Leno Thing: I can’t resist…

Comments from NBC executive Dick Ebersol yesterday have been making the rounds:

Referring to the pointed jokes made this week by Mr. O’Brien and David Letterman of CBS, Mr. Ebersol said it was “chicken-hearted and gutless to blame a guy you couldn’t beat in the ratings.”

He added that “what this is really all about is an astounding failure by Conan.”



He might have a point. Conan’s ratings were pretty poor. For the first time since Leno’s early tenure in that time slot, other shows were highly competitive against The Tonight Show. Dave regularly beat Conan in the ratings.

Noted. But Dick should tell it like it is. If “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” was a failure, then “The Jay Leno Show” was a disaster. Conan wasn’t the host of the show that was costing affiliates hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.

“The Jay Leno” was worse than a mere disaster. “The Jay Leno Show” was a goddamned Chernobyl. It was such a monumental, toxic collapse that after the evacuation of Leno and his staff, the 10 PM timeslot was declared permanently uninhabitable by network talk shows. I can’t imagine anything that Conan could have done during the remaining two and a half years of his “Tonight Show” contract that could have possibly topped that.

14 thoughts on “More on the Leno Thing: I can’t resist…

  1. Caret

    > then “The Jay Leno Show” was a disaster.

    I find myself in the odd position of having to defend Leno only because Andy is confusing cause and effect. My contention is that NOBODY wants to watch a talk show at 10pm. Letterman would have died in that slot. Carson, Merv, they all would have died at 10pm. I do not believe that this was Leno’s fault.

    Leno did not ask to be moved to 10pm, it was decided by the accountants at the network. AND he did not ask to be bumped back to 11:35. So I don’t understand why Andy wants Leno to take the fall for the whole fiasco. Could it be a long-standing grudge because your boy Letterman did not get the Tonight show oh these many years ago?

  2. Ihnatko Post author

    I have no dog in that hunt. Why would I care about the results of an 18-year-old business deal?

    And my attitude has nothing to do with my opinions on his show. Like I said earlier: Jay, Conan and Dave are just three different comedy products.

    But I’m confused by any opinion that Jay is a helpless victim…particularly when that opinion is articulated by Leno himself. He could have fought to keep “Tonight”; he could have turned down the 10 PM slot; he could have said “No, the ‘Tonight Show’ belongs to Conan now.”

    Instead, he made a fairly flashy public gesture of voluntarily stepping aside to establish a smooth transition to the next host; he looked at the 10 PM proposal with the eyes of an experienced 25-year TV veteran and said “Sure, this sounds like a great idea”; and when that show started to tank, instead of fighting to keep it on the air (or accepting that he’d made a couple of bad decisions and just moving on), he wasted no time communicating to NBC and the world that he was ready to step back behind the “Tonight” desk the moment it was offered to him.

    Again I say: Jay Leno isn’t Forrest Gump. He makes choices. I don’t think he should be vilified for what he does — all of these people are grownups, and the bottom line here is “business is business” — but for him to go shopping for sympathy is emphatically the wrong move. He’s the sole architect of his current situation.

    (Which, I remind you, is “He moves from one of the biggest flops in the past ten years of TV, straight back into the most lucrative and visible pulpits in broadcasting.”)

  3. Distorted Loop

    I just don’t get why you have this Jay-hate-fetish all of a sudden. I’ve watched Jay’s monologue, mostly just out of habit, for years, but after all this hoopla and your posts, I’ve been TiVo-ing all the big ones lately for comparison. Result of comparison: THEY ALL SUCK.

    Late night comedy/talk format is stale, formulaic, and just not the entertaining. Basic format for most is: Monologue, pointless banter with band leader/announcer, some silly skit, some actor promoting their latest movie, another stupid skit, some B-list actor/author/comedian, maybe a music artist.

    Granted, this is perhaps more personal taste than anything else but Jay’s monologue is predictable & mildly amusing. Conan’s is predictable and slightly less amusing – and the odd things he does with his hands and face are just creepy. Dave’s just cranky, mean spirited, and amazingly, apparently still extremely bitter about Jay/NBC thing even two decades later! Jimmy’s so nervous it’s uncomfortable to watch, and if you’re over 25 he’s probably not funny at all.

    Maybe it’s time all of these shows were chucked out the window.

    But back to your fetish over blogging about this: you keep assuming facts not in evidence, you have ZERO information beyond some vague news releases and the bitter jokes of a couple of comedians, one of whom has made bitter jokes about the network for many years. Unless you’re a personal confidant of Jay’s or Conan’s, or the network execs at NBC making these decisions, you have no idea what the real motivations of any of them are, and these bitter tirades and attacks come across as nothing more than mean-spirited pandering. But I guess it’s fun to spark the conversation?

    Did Jay make fun of you in his monologue once upon a time? You sure seem to have a personal axe to grind against someone who you originally admitted you didn’t watch because he’s replacing someone you didn’t watch. Something’s not adding up.

  4. bwooster

    I don’t understand why NBC chose to make this an either/or decision. They have two talented comedians, both with big name value. For a network languishing in 4th place, deliberately tossing one of their few hot properties seems extremely dumb. Picking Leno over Conan also seems dumb. Conan is likely to settle in, keep his existing audience and grow it over time. Leno’s audience dies a little of old age every day.

    It would have made sense to me, given the failure of the Leno show, to cancel it and work with Jay on some other project. One that doesn’t sap viewers from Conan. Leno couldn’t do a series of comedy specials, or a Curb Your Enthusiasm-type sitcom?

    I just don’t get why either one of them had to “go away”.

    However, this whole thing works out great for me as a viewer. They are all funnier and more relevant than they were 3 weeks ago. Misery makes good comedy.

  5. Buzz Lightyear

    Aw c’mon Distorted, you only have to scratch the surface to see what the motivation of Jay, Conan and NBC is…money. That’s what it’s about, nothing more and nothing less. Leno could’ve left the Tonight Show on a high note like Carson did so many years ago and continue is stand-up schtick none the worse for wear. He didn’t, he accepted the 10:00pm slot which, as Caret points out, is a time slot where probably nobody wants to watch a talk show.

    As I recall, it took a couple of years before Leno was able to build his audience and start beating Letterman’s ratings consistently. Conan has had what? Six months up against an established brand (Letterman)? He had the same experience when he took Letterman’s NBC show way back when. NBC even cancelled him at one point for one night until they realized that they had nothing else going.

    The angle I’m surprised nobody has bit on is what if it’s all a farce? What if NBC started the crap flying to give Conan’s ratings a boost? In short, what if it’s a publicity stunt?

    Is Letterman still bitter about being Carson’s preferred heir apparent and the maneuvering of Leno’s agent? You betcha. Carson was bitter about the same thing for his remaining years. If i were him I’d be reveling in the moment too. The mistake any of them made is in trusting that NBC was negotiating in good faith. The road to any studio is littered with the bodys of the people who made that mistake.

  6. Distorted Loop

    Hey Buzz, of course you’re right about the motivation of Jay, Conan, and NBC being money. That’s the obvious angle. What’s annoying is Andy’s persistent personalized attacks against Jay as if he’s some evil Machiavellian puppet-master who’s out to screw Conan for some reason. Jay wants his money, Conan wants his money, NBC affiliates (the real cause behind all this in my opinion) want the money of big numbers leading into their 11:00 PM newscasts.

    Why is Jay the only evil one in all this? Jay is portrayed as greedy and unwilling to yield, NBC is portrayed as stupidly managed, and Conan is portrayed as the poor suffering nice guy who’s getting screwed for no reason at all. Doesn’t make sense to me. Why isn’t Conan being portrayed as a greedy guy who won’t compromise a little for the good of all three parties? Conan’s attitude is “I get 11:35 or I walk”, according to the rumor mill. There all greedy bastards in my mind, and they all make far obscene amounts of money. Conan allegedly gets $40 million for walking? Wow, hard to feel sorry for a guy who gets a $40 million golden parachute when I won’t make a fraction of that in my lifetime.

  7. Distorted Loop

    Hey Buzz, another thought I wanted to keep separate from the points of the first, so I split it into two posts:

    It didn’t take Jay years to get good ratings, it took 18 months.

    The thing is, you can’t compare the two situations. Jay took over the Tonight show in 1992, at a time when broadcast television still pretty much ruled entertainment, and viewer options were limited. CableTV was around in metro areas, but you only had a couple of dozen channels to choose from, not the hundreds you have now. YouTube, NetFlix, Hulu, etc. weren’t even dreamed of. The internet wasn’t around in any meaningful way. NBC had the luxury of little meaningful competition and with that luxury came time and patience.

    Sadly, for Conan, the entertainment market is so fractured and so full of options there’s little tolerance for any show not getting good ratings in just a short time. Look at all the shows that get axed after just a few episodes, depsite vocal fan bases. I’m not just talking about dramas and sitcoms, aren’t there plenty of short-lived talk shows in the history books?

    I’m not so sure Conan will grow with time, as Jay did. That’s not a reflection on Conan, it’s a reflection on the market. Too many options, and more coming. Jimmy Fallon’s the only smart one in that regard – he’s all over YouTube and other new-media markets, the others aren’t. Conan’s got an old-school modeled product (refer to my original post about how they all basically follow the same old stale format) in a new-school environment. If Conan is kept around, I think he’ll really need to find a way to freshen up the format to grow any meaningful audience. There’s just too many exciting new ways to consume entertainment to expect a 50 year old style show to continue without changes.

  8. Harry Henderson

    Regarding Conan’s poor ratings, it can’t be helpful to have Jay’s bomb sitting there in prime time.

  9. Tony Taylor

    Funny to read this kind of fuss about a time-slot in this era of time shifting and streaming Video. Here in the UK the format for satire or fun with the weeks news is not the monologue but the Faux Quiz, I can think of at least four right off the top of my head. The benefit of this format us you get jokes bouncing off other comics and getting added to. Believe it or not this sort of TOPICAL show is not fixed in a time slot but is funny in repeats sometimes years later. Perhaps Jay and Conan should share just such a show.

  10. Distorted Loop

    Funny, Jay’s ratings are better than was expected, so not sure you can call it a bomb. Also funny is that Conan and his fans didn’t complain about Jay’s ratings when they were a direct lead-in to Conan’s show at 12:30…

    I totally agree with Tony about time shifting. As I mentioned above, I am able to, and have been, TiVo-ing five of the late night shows for the past week and watching at least part of each of them the following day. I rarely watched The Tonight Show, whether it was Jay or Conan, live when it was at 11:35 PM. I always TiVo-ed it and watched the monologue the next morning. Even at 10:00, I usually TiVo Jay and watch just his monologue a little later in the evening.

    Sigourney Weaver’s monologue on Saturday Night Live last night was humorous when she talked about her father (who she says invented the Tonight Show when he was an exec at NBC) and his wishes for a non-controversial talk show at 11:30 that people could drift off to sleep watching.

  11. Michael

    Andi it seems your gambling paid off, I am surprised you haven’t written anything in regards to Apple announcement. Maybe it just feels good to be right. Can’t for your take on this new thing.

  12. Tim harness

    Don’t have a stake in this fight, since I work the “Anne Rice” shift, but heard Aaron Barnhart on the Walt Bodine show this morning talking about the late night fight. Should be available as a podcast at later today.

  13. Harry

    Woops, wrong article!


    JANUARY 24, 2010, 10:56 P.M. ET
    How Conan Should Have Said Goodbye

    Just a few words now to my incredibly loyal audience, including the crowds of people who came from far and wide to stand in the pouring rain all night to get into the studio, my heartfelt thanks and prayers that you soon find your way out of the mental disorders plaguing you. Godspeed on that.

    As you know I’m deeply grateful to NBC, my home for so many years. First, though, it’s time to acknowledge what we all know in our hearts and whatever minds we have left after years of immersion in the witlessness that passes as late night comedy: including especially, that of Leno who has taught me at last, the meaning of terms like “the emperor has no clothes.”

    But most of all I want to leave here this last night sharing with you my amazement that the contracts and fates of a couple of empty-headed products of their equally vacant-minded writers should be major news for weeks, covered like some world crisis. Never mind the business part of this story, of NBC and its missteps, given column space and depth analysis that Janet Napolitano and the whole bizarre crew in charge of our national security didn’t get. But—all the hand-wringing, the debates about my fate and Leno’s fate—really bizarre stuff—about who’s to blame is really astounding. It’s just astounding that a network’s programming change like the one that sent me scooting out of NBC, and stories of Leno’s numbers as opposed to mine, and the problems of the affiliates should have been inflated into a major national drama and reported on as though all America cares—and cares a lot. Does any sane person believe this?

    But we all know who really cares. The narcissism that drives the media knows no bounds (I really wish I could talk this way in real life) and every media story is, to a journalist, a world -shaking event.

    Late night show hosts adrift! Poor Leno, deprived of his rightful audience! Poor Conan!

    Somewhere deep down even the press knows, like everyone else, that the 500th re-run of “Seinfeld” or “The Office,” “The Simpsons” or “Frasier” is a billion times fresher, and worthy of being called comedy than anything we’ve ever come up with—except, of course, for the occasional spectacle of Letterman’s on-air breakdowns.

    It’s not the first time I’ve wondered about this kind of thing—especially those news/talk shows. For instance, that one on ABC on Sundays that ends with: “And now for the Sunday funnies.” Others have done the same .

    One thing was always obvious to me about those new talk programs that couldn’t wait to toss in a few clips of late night comedy—they can’t have a lot of faith in the news and commentary they just finished dispensing if they need us for a crutch.

    So, friends, I’ll go forward and get another contract but I promise you this now. I go knowing that if Letterman, Leno and I are considered top entertainment talents—if what happens with our time slots and contracts passes as major news for weeks running—then our culture is in big trouble. But we know that already, don’t we?

    One final piece of advice, to all those studio audiences screaming themselves silly at our shows, whatever we say—the kind that attended that Letterman show in such a state of stupefaction (I really do wish I could talk this way) that when Letterman tried in his own weird way to confess his sexual affairs with employees, they kept laughing and applauding. They’d lost capacity for any other response. A serious condition. Get help, people.

    To my friends in the national media—that goes double for you.

    Till we meet again. Conan.

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