On January 10 of this year NBC made the shocking announcement that they intended to move Jay Leno to 11:35 PM Eastern/10:35 PM Central, where he would host a half hour show. The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien would be moved to 12:05 Midnight Eastern/11:05 Central. On January 12, Conan O'Brien released a statement in which he expressed his displeasure with NBC, stating that "The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn’t The Tonight Show." It soon became apparent that Conan was not alone in his displeasure. Literally thousands of people have expressed their outrage at NBC on blogs, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and nearly every other venue on the Internet. It would seem that the only people who think NBC's plan is a good idea is NBC and, possibly, Jay Leno.
Ultimately, it would seem that NBC has no one to blame but themselves for this public relations nightmare. It all began in the wake of Jay Leno's departure from The Tonight Show. NBC was so worried that Leno might move to a competing network that they made various offers to him. They offered slots in the daytime or the cable channels linked to NBC. They offered a series of regularly scheduled specials and even a half hour show that would air each weekday at 8 PM Eastern/7 PM Central. Leno rejected all of these offers. Finally, NBC offered Leno a hour long show that would air each weeknight at 10:00 PM Eastern/9:00 PM Central. While NBC touted Leno's move to primetime with a good deal of fanfare, and behaved as this was some bit of novel programming, in truth late night hosts had moved into primetime before. Indeed, the original host of Tonight, Steven Allen , made the move to primetime in 1956 and remained there for five years. His successor, Jack Paar, also moved into primetime in 1962. His primetime show aired for three years. Jay Leno was not unique as a Tonight Show host in moving to primetime. He was simply doing what everyone of his predecessors had done except for Johnny Carson.
Even before the debut of The Jay Leno Show, there were observers who expected it to fail. In Time James Poniewozik expressed his doubts about the show. In The Atlantic Derek Thompson also expressed his doubts about the show. While there were many who thought Leno would succeed in primetime, there were yet others who predicted the poor ratings it has received (I did so myself in this blog). Even at least one NBC affiliate had its doubts as to the ability of The Jay Leno Show to perform in the ratings. WHDH in Boston, Massachusetts announced they would not carry the show for fear that it would be a detriment to the station's late local news. NBC claimed this would be in violation of the station's contract with the network and that it would remove all NBC programming from WHDH if it did not air The Jay Leno Show. In the end WHDH backed down and did air the programme.
Unfortunately for NBC, it appears that the various observers, not to mention WHDH, who expressed their doubts about The Jay Leno Show were right. The Jay Leno Show did not simply perform poorly in the ratings. It was a catastrophic failure. While the show did well in the ratings early on, by October it was routinely being beaten by the dramas on CBS and ABC except for the now long gone series Eastwick. It was even beaten by a rerun of CSI: Miami. NBC's affiliates were extremely upset, believing that with its bottom of the barrel ratings The Jay Leno Show was losing the audience for their late local news.
As to The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, the programme began in June 2009 with fairly strong ratings. As time passed, however, the show was nearly in a dead heat with The Late Show with David Letterman. By November The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien was down two million viewers from when Jay Leno had hosted the show, although its ratings were still quite respectable. Curiously, since the controversy over returning to Jay Leno erupted, the programme's ratings have taken a leap, to the point that yesterday The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien received an unheard of 1.9 rating.
Sadly, NBC's reaction to both the disastrous showing of The Jay Leno Show and the moderate success of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien would seem to be bereft of all rhyme and reason. Indeed, in The New York Times Dick Ebsersol not only went so far as to defend Jay Leno in this current controversy, but to viciously attack Conan O'Brien. Aside from rather inappropriate insults directed at O'Brien, Ebersol laid the blame for the lower ratings The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien squarely at the feet of Conan O'Brien. It seems blatantly obvious to me that Ebsersol (for whom I have lost all respect) and NBC have not objectively analysed the situation whatsoever. The simple fact is that following its debut in September, The Jay Leno Show brought with it what became know n in the industry as "the Leno effect." Historically, viewers have tended to remain on whatever channel to which they were tuned at 10 PM Eastern/9 PM Central for their late local news and late night programming. Quite simply, a highly rated show at 10 10 PM Eastern/9 PM Central will help a station's ratings. A low rated show at 10 PM Eastern/9 PM Central will hurt its ratings. With its poor ratings, The Jay Leno Show essentially created a domino effect, whereby the audience for the late local news on NBC affiliates across the nation was down sometimes by as much as a third. Indeed, it must be pointed out that it was after the debut of The Jay Leno Show that the ratings for The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien really began to take a hit, as well as the ratings for NBC's other two late night shows.
Given that it was ultimately Jay Leno who was responsible for NBC's declining fortunes in late night programming, it seems curious that they are considering returning him to late night at all. I can think of several reasons for them not to. The first is a simple matter of fairness. In 2004 it was decided that Conan O'Brien would take over Tonight from Jay Leno. Now, after a matter of only seven months, during which time O'Brien has brought The Tonight Show respectable ratings, the network wants to move the programme to 12:05, giving a half hour over to Jay Leno, whose show is ultimately to blame for NBC's lower ratings in late night programming. Whether his contract specifies a guarantee of time slot or not, I know that this is not what Conan O'Brien signed on for. Everyone knows The Tonight Show airs at 11:35 PM Eastern/10:35 PM Central. Indeed, if it was moved a half hour later, it would actually be airing the next day on the East Coast!
Beyond the matter of being fair to the parties involved, there is also the simple matter of tradition. Tonight debuted on September 27, 1954 at 11:30 PM Eastern/10:30 PM Central. In January 1957, as Jack Paar took over the hosting duties, fifteen minutes were added to Tonight, so that it began at 11:15 PM Eastern/10:15 PM Central. The show then had two openings--one for affiliates joining the broadcast at 11:15 PM Eastern/10:15 PM Central and one for those joining at 11:30 PM Eastern/10:30 PM Central. In 1965, because Johnny Carson did not really care for the show essentially opening twice, the time was set to 11:30 PM Eastern/10:30 PM Central. Since then the only real change in its time came in 1991 when it was moved to 11:35 PM Eastern/10:35 PM to give affiliates five more minutes for their late local news. Given that Tonight has aired in essentially the same time slot (give or take fifteen minutes) for over fifty years, it would seem a bit silly to move it now. Indeed, as I pointed out, if the show was moved a half hour later it would actually be airing on the next day on the East Coast. It would essentially cease to be Tonight and become Tomorrow (an entirely different show that had aired on NBC).
Even if one dismisses the matters of fairness and tradition out of hand, there is one very important matter that NBC cannot afford to ignore: the ratings. At the moment there appear to be a good many people who will simply stop watching NBC's late night programming if Leno was returned there. It is impossible to say how large those numbers would be, but they could be enough to hand David Letterman an easy ratings victory every night. Furthermore, it must be pointed out that viewers failed to tune into Jay Leno's prime time show. If his proposed half hour in late night differs little from his outing in prime time, viewers might fail to tune in again. This would also hand David Letterman an easy ratings victory. Sadly, it is very unlikely that viewers would switch to The Tonight Show airing at 12:05 Midnight Eastern/11:05 PM Central, or to Late Night or Later. The end result is that CBS would win every night with The Late Show with David Letterman and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Who knows? ABC might even pick up in the ratings with regards to Nightline and Jimmy Kimmel Live. Ultimately, The Tonight Show, NBC's oldest show besides Meet the Press, Today, and The NBC Nightly News, would be placed in jeopardy.
Of course, at the moment it seems possible that Jay Leno could step right back in as host of The Tonight Show. While NBC might find this appealing, they seem to be the only ones. I have no doubt that Leno's loyal fans would return to The Tonight Show, so that he would not totally be without an audience. But then NBC also has to face the fact that in the past few days Jay Leno has come to be reviled in a way that few comedians ever have been. Many people who were once indifferent to him or even liked him a little bit now hate him vehemently. Whether Jay Leno (who always seemed like a nice guy to me) deserves such hatred is besides the point. It seems to be a fact. And the plain truth is that viewers who now despise Jay Leno will probably never tune into a Tonight Show hosted by him. Indeed, NBC no longer has to worry about Leno defecting to a competitor. In fact, with public relations for NBC and Leno at all time lows, it would seem that he might actually be doing them a favour if he did.
At the moment it is difficult to say how NBC's late night mess will unfold. As mentioned earlier, Conan O'Brien has seen a groundswell of support, displayed over a large number of platforms on the Internet. NBC has to have noticed this and, if they are reasonable at all, must take this into account. Indeed, I rather suspect most people in such a position would keep Conan O'Brien on The Tonight Show and find some place where they could place Jay Leno. Unfortunately, networks do not seem to function according to any logic known to the rest of us. They have cancelled quality shows even when there has been an outpouring of support for them. They have kept bad shows on the air, even when the ratings for those shows might be subpar. In the early part of the decade the networks insisted on filling the airwaves with reality show after reality show. Sadly, NBC might simply let Conan go and return Leno to late night. Of course, if they do, I think this particular network is going to find a lot of people are mad as Hell and are not going to take it any more.