In January I predicted that Jay Leno's return to The Tonight Show would be a disaster of catastrophic proportions.Indeed, in the early months of this year Leno became the most reviled person in television, surpassed perhaps only by NBC President Jeff Zucker and once legendary NBC executive Dick Ebersol. Those who favoured Jay Leno's return to The Tonight Show over NBC retaining Conan O'Brien seemed about as rare as the dodo bird. Quite simply, NBC seemed poised for a ratings disaster, while any repuations Zucker and Ebersol might have had for great programming decisions was ruined once and for all. Quite simply, they had made one of the great mistakes in television history.
NBC trumpeted Jay Leno's return to The Tonight Show as if he was Napoleon returning from Elba, all the while viewers and critics predicted his return would be closer akin to the introduction of New Coke. In truth it seems as if both NBC and its naysayers were wrong. Leno's ratings were not the triumph that NBC apparently thought it would be. At the same time, however, they were not as low as many of us thought they would be. In fact, even though Leno's ratings were lower than Conan O'Brien's ratings had been, he was still beating David Letterman and his ratings were hardly catastrophic. I am guessing NBC was disappointed that their beloved Jay had not proven to be the ratings giant they had thought he would be. I am also guessing that Conan's supporters and Leno's critics were disappointed that Jay's ratings were not the catastrophe they should have been (I know that I was). Now, however, it seems that those of us who predicted Leno's return to late night would be a catastrophe were right, it was simply our timing that was wrong.
It seems that in the second quarter of this year, the first full quarter on which Jay Leno has been hosting The Tonight Show, he posted his lowest ratings since 1993. Indeed, these ratings are actually lower than the ratings Conan O'Brien recieved during his all too short stint as the host of The Tonight Show. What is worse, ABC's Nightline, once a consistent third behind The Tonight Show and The Late Show with David Letterman, now regularly beats both The Tonight Show and The Late Show with David Letterman in the ratings. It would then seem that those of us who predicted Jay Leno's return to The Tonight Show would be a disaster were absolutely right.
This situation is made all the more worse for NBC in that the network is paying Jay Leno $30 million per year, nearly twice that they played Conan O'Brien, which was only $15 million per year. And while it is hard to believe for many of us given the quality of the show these days, Leno has a production staff larger than that Mr. O'Brien had, a fact which could actually mean The Tonight Show now loses more money than it takes in! Given that television networks exist primarily to make money, this is hardly an ideal situation for NBC.
The folly in NBC returning Jay Leno to The Tonight Show is even reflected in the Emmy nominations issued this morning. The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien was nominated for Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Series. Neither The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (which won the award only once, in 1995) nor The Late Show with David Letterman (nominated several times and winning several times) were nominated. It would seem that it is not only viewers who prefer Mr. O'Brien to Leno, but the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences as well!
What makes all of this a greater folly on NBC's part is that they should have known better than to return Jay Leno to The Tonight Show. Jay Leno's primetime show was such a catastrophe that it not only drew extremely low ratings itself, but if torpedoed the ratings for the late night news programmes of NBC affiliates nationwide and even affected the ratings of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien--that Mr. O'Brien did as well as he did in the ratings only proves just how loyal and large his following is. Even worse than Jay Leno's prime time disaster, the moment NBC he announced he would be returning to The Tonight Show, he became one of the most reviled figures in television history. In fact, the only people who still liked Leno seemed to be NBC and his fans, mostly middle aged to elderly women (hardly the 18-49 demographic for whom NBC and the other networks lust). In NBC deciding to go ahead and return Jay Leno amidst the numerous protests at this return was not only foolhardy, it was downright stupid. It would seem to be one of the greatest mistakes in programming history (alongside giving Jay Leno a primetime series to begin with).
Tragically for NBC, this could not have come at a worse time. NBC is about to be taken over by monolithic cable company Comcast in a $28 billion deal. I rather suspect that Comcast is not pleased by the fact that NBC returned Jay Leno to The Tonight Show when good sense dictated they keep Conan O'Brien. And they are probably even less pleased with the results of that decision, the fact that The Tonight Show is losing money hand over fist. If I were Jeff Zucker or Dick Ebersol, I would be very worried about my job. Indeed, I think both Jeff Zucker and Dick Ebersol, particularly Ebsersol (who not only appears to have lost all programming savvy, but appears to be an outright jerk as well), should issue an apology to both Conan O'Brien and television viewers. Most of all, I would ditch Jay Leno at the earliest opportunity. It is true he has a two year contract with NBC. It is true it would cost NBC a good deal of money to fire Leno now. That having been said, it might cost NBC less to send Leno packing than to keep him on the air!
What makes all of this utterly sad is that NBC has such an illustrious history. NBC is the oldest broadcast network in the United States and one of the oldest in the world (in fact, only the BBC may be older). In 1929 it was NBC who aired what may have been the first nationally broadcast sitcom (admittedly, it was Amos 'n' Andy). n 1939 NBC became the first network to air regularly scheduled television broadcasts. NBC was the first to offer an early morning news programme (The Today Show), the first to offer a late night programme (Broadway Open House), the first to broadcast a programme in colour in 1953, and the first to broadcast in stereo in 1984. NBC was the network which first broadcast such classic shows as Mr. Peepers, Dragnet, Peter Gunn, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Star Trek, and Crime Story. It does cause me a bit of pain to see how Jeff Zucker and Dick Ebersol drove the nation's oldest and one of its most esteemed networks to an all time low. I can only imagine company founder General David Sarnoff is spinning in his grave. I can only hope that the network comes to its senses and not only fires Jay Leno, but apologise to Conan O'Brien and their viewers for the mess they have made. Maybe then, and maybe only then, they could salvage something out of a catastrophe they created.