Back to the Late Shift 

23 January 2010

History has an ugly way of repeating itself at NBC. Currently embroiled in a war over late night comedy shows, NBC seems to have not learned its lesson not to alienate its viewers or its talent—and just like it was eighteen years ago, NBC’s war of the late night worlds is centred around one Mr Jay Leno.

There Goes Johnny

Bill Carter covered the first major change in late night television with his wonderful book “The Late Shift”. It covers the behind the scenes drama of a network trying to appease all of its talent in the midst of an upcoming change. In 1991, venerable entertainer Johnny Carson shocked NBC executives when he announced during a network press tour that the following spring would bring an end to his run as host of “The Tonight Show”, NBC’s signature late night programme since the golden age of television. NBC then turned around and shocked audiences, critics, and entertainment insiders alike, when they, in turn, announced that Johnny’s successor would be then-guest host Jay Leno. Leno had been Johnny’s permanent guest host for years, and he’d had designs on Carson’s timeslot as well. No one was more surprised than David Letterman, host of NBC’s “Late Night”, who had eyed Carson’s desk for years and had been all but promised that famed Los Angeles stage when Carson retired. Instead, Leno was signed, and Letterman felt deeply sidelined and hurt. Eventually, Letterman left NBC to start up his own show opposite “Tonight” at CBS, where he was promised more creative control and ownership over his own material.

With Letterman’s spot and NBC vacated, the network was left scrambling to find a replacement. Lorne Michaels, executive producer of “Saturday Night Live”, was put in charge of building the new “Late Night” and finding a host for the programme. He suggested former staff writer Conan O’Brien. NBC’s reaction mirrored that of the general public: “Who?”

Conan O'Brien publicity shot for The Tonight Show (NBC)

Conan, a gangly yet charming Irish giant had been writing for “The Simpsons” after his stint at SNL, but critics could not get over the fact that he was a relative unknown. Prodded about this very fact during a press conference, Conan famously retorted, “Sir, I am a complete unknown!” NBC, ever cautious about their decision, renewed Conan’s contract to the network in thirteen-week increments, before finally signing him to long term deals after about a year. Able to deflect situations such as these with humor right off the bat, Conan’s debut on “Late Night” started humbly, but quickly grew in popularity, eventually earning him the status of a late night powerhouse. Whenever interviewed about his newfound career in late night, Conan would humbly and gratefully mention Johnny Carson, patriarch of the “Tonight Show” franchise, and would even mention how he’d love to take the reins of the show one day.

15 Years of Still Waters

Jay and Conan chugged along at NBC for over a decade. Leno repeatedly beat Letterman in ratings, helped with exclusive interviews with powerhouses with stars like Mel Gibson, Hugh Grant after his embarrassing rendezvous with a hooker, and “Law & Order” star Angie Harmon when her then-boyfriend Jason Sehorn proposed to her in front of the audience. Politicians began coming to Jay’s show to make major campaign announcements: Arnold Schwarzenegger chose Jay’s platform to announce his candidacy for California Governor. Every candidate for the 2008 election stopped by Jay’s couch for an interview, and during the spring of 2009, Barack Obama became the first sitting President to make an appearance on a network television talk show with Jay. Conan, meanwhile, attracted a younger set of viewers who were interested in his experimental formats, gags, and theme shows (one show was recorded and then rebroadcast as a stop-motion animation special).

Then in 2004, Leno announced that he would not renew his contract with “The Tonight Show” when it expired in 2009. NBC had the luxury of spending a lot of time gauging who they would get to replace Leno in five years. However, they thought they had their man—Conan O’Brien. Conan was quickly signed a contract to NBC at “Late Night” until 2009, when he would pack up and move to Los Angeles to take over “Tonight”. The “Tonight” deal would bear Conan’s name until at least 2014, the sixtieth anniversary of “The Tonight Show”. It all seemed wrapped up in a neat little package…


2008 came, and with Leno, came a change of heart. Jay said that he would be all but glad to stay on at NBC in some form or fashion, even hinting he would like to remain at “Tonight” if circumstances allowed. This caused a certain amount of consternation at NBC. ABC in particular had courted Leno in the past to defect to their late night schedules, and the rumour mill had already started churning that the network was making overtures once again. The last thing fourth-place NBC would want is to lose a heavy talent. So, a few months before Jay’s May finale as host of “The Tonight Show”, a new contract was signed, keeping Leno on NBC, and also radically changing the shape of the network. As part of the contract, Jay would get a new, primetime slot, every weekday from 10pm Eastern time, a full 95 minutes before “Tonight”. The slicing of five hours of primetime real estate on network television rocked the industry: this was a bold move, and it had a twofold effect—whatever ratings the new “Jay Leno Show” brought in would affect the local news that followed, which in turn would affect the new, Conan O’Brien-led “Tonight Show”.

Jay Leno in a publicity photo for The Jay Leno Show (NBC)

NBC invested a lot of money preparing Conan for “Tonight”. Conan personally negotiated for the moving expenses of whatever “Late Night” staff who wanted to follow him to Los Angeles. Space at Universal Studios (An NBC Universal theme park) was given to house a new theatre for the programme. Millions were spent in publicity, especially those of network stars touting, however tongue-in-cheek, the change: “30 Rock” star Tina Fey said, in the style of a pharmaceutical ad, “If your Conan lasts for more than three hours, call a doctor!”

Conan O’Brien’s first episode as host of “The Tonight Show” was 1 June 2009, and for devoted followers of his version of “Late Night”, it was just like watching his previous show, just an hour earlier and with a bigger look and feel. Former sidekick Andy Richter, who left “Late Night” in 2000, returned to be “The Tonight Show” announcer. Conan’s house band, The Max Weinberg Seven, migrated to Los Angeles and was rechristened The Tonight Show Band, and performed an updated version of Conan’s iconic theme tune.

Shotgun down the avalanche

The first hiccup occurred after Conan’s premiere week. Any high profile programming or host change is sure to bring massive ratings, so it was considered presumptuous of NBC to release a press statement calling Conan “the new king of late night.” Indeed, after the novelty of the change wore off, Conan’s ratings slipped behind Letterman consistently. Critics pointed to all the old reasons, “Conan’s no Jay Leno,” for example, to explain the downward slope. Conan’s camp tried to squash the criticism, citing that they didn’t seek to retain Jay’s audience, but their own, and to build off that audience into people that didn’t stay up to watch Conan at 12:35.

NBC answered speculation about the Leno show’s plausibility in primetime by saying the show would be “a 52-week experiment,” and that the network was “fully committed” to staying through the full year. The hope was that even if Conan’s ratings didn’t improve significantly by September, Jay Leno’s new primetime show would help. The assumption was that Jay’s “Tonight Show” audience would follow him to 10pm, would stick around for the late local news, and for Conan after that.

Again, that happened to start with. The first week of “The Jay Leno Show” brought great ratings; viewers stayed for the news, and stuck around to “Tonight”. But then, the bottom dropped out. Week by week, viewing figures slipped, slid, and crashed to the ground. Leno was losing out at the 10pm hour to crime dramas on CBS and medical dramas on ABC, and in some cases, to the local Fox and CW stations’ news bulletins. The network was losing viewers, which had a major effect on the local stations’ newscasts. A study concluded that at its worst, the network and stations were losing $500,000 in ad revenue a week because the audience simply wasn’t there.

A slight format change at “The Jay Leno Show” was ordered, and interview segments, musical performances, and comedy sketches were shuffled around to see if that was perhaps the magic ingredient to regaining viewership. It wasn’t. No matter what anyone did, no matter what big name was landed as a guest, the ratings were still on the floor, and the local stations were feeling the punch.

An avalanche of viewing figures was rolling full-force down the once powerful mountain that was NBC. The question was who set off the disaster: Jay? Conan? Either of them?

End game

In January 2010, the consortium of NBC-owned local stations came to the network with an ultimatum. Their demand was that “The Jay Leno Show” be pulled from the schedule after the Winter Olympics. They threatened that if it didn’t, they would simply pre-empt the show with other content, something that had a fighting chance of earning viewers and ad revenue.

Normally, a threat of this nature didn’t faze NBC. In fact the network had threatened to revoke the affiliation licence of a station that had announced it wouldn’t air Leno’s new show before it premièred (the station later recanted). But now, with ratings in the toilet and stations and network alike bleeding money on a daily basis, NBC concurred with the stations. “The Jay Leno Show” in primetime was cancelled, with a final broadcast date scheduled for 12 February.

There was a little matter of Leno’s contract to deal with. Cancelling “The Jay Leno Show” after four months meant a violation of the contract’s four-year terms, so a new deal had to be struck quickly. Leno had to stay on NBC’s screens in some form, and a solution was quickly drawn up. “The Jay Leno Show” would move to Conan’s 11:35 slot, be truncated by 30 minutes, thus moving “Tonight” and the rest of NBC’s late night lineup by a half hour.

Shortly after NBC made their announcement, all eyes turned to Conan for a response. Having left a job following Jay at 12.35, to move to his new digs at the iconic Tonight Show and still be following Jay, many wondered if this would be the straw that broke the Irish Catholic man’s back. Roughly 24 hours later, Conan released a written statement. Still peppered with dry humor (the missive was addressed to “People of Earth,” and concluded with an apology about his hairstyle), Conan summarily dismissed any indication that he was happy or cooperative with NBC’s request. “‘The Tonight Show’ at 12.05am is simply not ‘The Tonight Show,’” Conan wrote, “and I will not contribute to the show’s destruction.” Put more simply, if NBC insisted on moving Leno to 11.35, he would walk. NBC spent no time trying to negotiate to keep Conan on the air. Instead, they wanted Conan’s exit, and they wanted it sooner than immediately. A marathon of talks, meetings and negotiations surrounding the tactical and financial details of O’Brien’s departure from the network began hours after his statement was released.

Twitter, TMZ, CNN… the whole information system rocked with the phrases “late night,” “Tonight“, “Conan” and “Leno.” What would happen? Could it be true? Will Conan give “Tonight” back to Leno after only seven months? Will he go without a fight?

The response was swift and tremendous. A TV Guide poll found that 83% of viewers sided with Conan on the issue, with many respondents claiming they would boycott both Leno and NBC if Conan ended up out of work. Celebrities used their Twitter accounts to voice their opinions, offering Conan their support and their growing disdain for Leno, who they viewed as muscling Conan out of the network because Leno couldn’t bear to not be on late night.

I'm with CoCo, say Twitterers

Facebook groups trying to save “Tonight” with Conan popped up. Taking a page from the “Twilight Saga”, Twitter users began to join “Team Conan” and sport badges proclaiming “I’m With Coco,” complete with Conan in propagandistic pose. Social networks were flooded with messages of outrage and sympathy.

Days later, the situation became nastier. The two comics began giving sharp jabs to one another on their respective shows. “My name is Conan O’Brien,” the ‘Tonight’ host opened with one night, “and soon I’ll be available to host children’s parties!” Leno reconstructed the NBC acronym to mean “Never Believe Contracts.” The jokes became rougher and more antagonistic, but all the while, the hosts’ respective studio audiences welcomed them with standing ovations. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, host of his own late night show, devoted an entire episode to mocking Leno, in costume as the chin-endowed comic, and when Kimmel was invited to Leno’s show for the “10@10” interview segment, the ABC host skewered Jay when asked what the best prank he ever pulled was:

“I told a guy that ‘five years from now, I’m going to give you my show.’ And then when the five years came, I gave it to him. And then I took it back almost instantly. I think he works at Fox or something now.”

Then, NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol threw his two cents in. Ebersol, who had helped devise “Saturday Night Live” in 1975 and executive-produced the show for a few seasons in the early ’80s, claimed that Conan had been given advice on how to adapt his show for an 11pm audience. He said that his advice fell on deaf ears, and that Conan was a ‘complete loser,’ among a string of other harsh words. Ebersol’s words seemed to accelerate the inevitable: TMZ soon reported that NBC executives were negotiating with Conan for a hasty exit from both “Tonight” and from NBC, with a final episode slated for 22 January. Then, on 21 January, NBC announced that Conan was taking an exit deal of $45 million for himself and his staff; and Jay Leno would be back at “The Tonight Show”.

A bitter end to a long and devoted career at the National Broadcasting Company: It happened in 1993 when David Letterman denounced his home network and started from scratch and CBS. NBC tried and failed to legally prevent Letterman from using his “Top Ten Lists” and “Stupid Pet Tricks” segments on his new show as intellectual property of NBC. It’s happening again, in 2010: Conan O’Brien, who has been rumoured to have been romanced by Fox to start a daily late night series of its own, has already been told that his characters and sketches must not appear on any network after his departure.

So it seems that in the world of network television: history must always repeat itself because network television cannot learn from the mistakes of the past. It seems unfortunate that Jay Leno, who by many is considered to be a kind and thoughtful man as well as a hard and devoted worker, is at the centre of a negative publicity whirlwind, under much the same circumstance as he was during Carson’s departure in 1992. However, it’s also unfortunate that Conan, who did nothing other than the best show he could every night, had his chance at the legendary “Tonight Show” cut abysmally short because of the network’s continued and massive failures. O’Brien negotiated for protection for his loyal staff members, all of whom will soon be out of work for an indeterminate length of time, and for that, it should be noted that these are two standup stand-up comics, and while reputations are going to be bruised on both sides for some time, hopefully both will make it through this late shift with their careers intact.

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