Friday, January 22, 2010

Late-Night Musical Chairs

The dust has settled, and everyone is ready to move forward in the interest of the general public.
No, I'm not talking about health care reform, I'm referring to the deal struck over at NBC. Jay Leno is moving back to "The Tonight Show" after the Winter Olympics are over. The once-proud Peacock Network gave Conan O'Brien and his staff severance pay totalling $45 million, $33 million of which is going to O'Brien.
There are no winners in this sorry affair. NBC first forced Leno into early retirement when his ratings began to slip, and he happily agreed to step aside. Then he used his capital to stay in violation of the agreement inked in 2004 when his ratings began to go back up, creating a sense of contentiousness not seen since Johnny Carson retired and Leno went up against David Letterman for the right to succeed him. Meanwhile, as noted before, O'Brien has been denied the chance to develop "The Tonight Show" in his own persona. As it evolved, a Conan O'Brien-hosted "Tonight Show" would have been different from the Leno version as the Leno version was different from the show in Carson's day.
Ironies abound here. Leno was forced to give up "The Tonight Show" in the interest of NBC's long-term planning for late night, and now his return to that program is a quick fix. The lack of long-term planning on NBC's part involving drama series in the 10 PM Eastern hour forces the network to quickly fill the time slot Leno has just vacated before they can think of planning for the long term. And the quick fixes Jeffrey Zucker was trying to keep NBC afloat in the ratings for prime time a decade ago have created long-term problems for NBC to address, now that the Leno experiment has failed even as NBC's prime time lineup features some of the least impressive shows of recent memory. Is "Parks and Recreation" really that funny?
Leno may have returned to late night in triumph like Napoleon returning from Elba, but Napoleon at least was able to convince enough French soldiers to stand by him at Waterloo. It remains to be seen whether Leno can win back fans who got bored with him during his ill-fated prime time show. As for O'Brien, whose similarly short-lived "Tonight Show" stint ends tonight with his last show, he'll be a free agent this September. And there at least two other networks (CBS isn't one of them, of course) who may be interested in him. Look for Fox, whose efforts to establish a late-night presence have been as unsuccessful as CBS's were during the Pat Sajak era, to come calling for Conan.

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