Upfronts are happening right now at all of the major networks, and while (as of this posting) NBC has already released most of their schedule, ABC , FOX, CBS and the CW don’t happen until later this month. So, I’ll wait to discuss the fall pickups (and drops) until much later. For now, I’d like to discuss Jay Leno. Look, I know that there are very opinionated people either way. I’ll save my opinion for the end of the article. Let’s just talk about why it’s happening and why it seems the majority of television watchers are up in arms.
Jay Leno took over The Tonight Show in 1992 after Johnny Carson’s retirement and a huge uproar between NBC, Leno, and David Letterman. He’s gone on to be the highest rated after-news talk show for his entire run by a 19 percent margin in adult viewers. In 2004, NBC made an announcement that Leno would be retiring in 2009, and would be succeeded by Conan O’Brien. All of this was announced early in order to avoid a repeat performance from 1992. Everyone believed that would be the end of it and Leno would go the way of Carson: remembered fondly for his tenure as host. However, in December of 2008, NBC released a statement explaining that Leno would move into primetime with an hour long show at 10 p.m./9 central. The internet exploded about that time with concerns over shows that have always been on the fence and what this would mean for Conan O’Brien.
For starters, this really puts the pressure on shows like Medium that have been ‘bubble’ shows; meaning when NBC has nothing else to air, they toss Medium into the fray. And shows like Law & Order and Chuck that have wobbling ratings are left up in the air. From a network standpoint, it is much more cost effective to make an hour long Leno show than it is to order a full season of any one of the bubble shows. (For example, it costs around $15 million a week for shows like Law & Order, whereas Leno’s show would be around $2 million a week). I don’t believe that up against shows like CSI or Grey’s Anatomy NBC could win the ratings time slot, but on Wednesday and Friday which are traditionally the slower days of the week, he could easily bring in large numbers. But what’s happening is that a full hour of primetime is being eaten up by this show that is (for all intents and purposes) a clone of The Tonight Show with more Jay Walking and Headlines.
One debate on the internet is that this effectively takes away from Conan O’Brien. Think about it: If you were an A-list celebrity and you had the option of promoting your film in primetime or taking a chance and waiting until after the local news, which would you rather do? Personally, I’m going for that early spot when people are still awake and families are gathered around the television. So Conan will get the leftovers and the B-listers just as he always has. (Of course that’s not always the case, but it is the trend. You won’t see Sue Johanson on The Tonight Show.) And that leaves Jimmy Fallon with relative nobodies. And after three talk shows, do we really need to stay up for a fourth with Carson Daly? It’s exhausting just typing it all out. Honestly, Jimmy Fallon would have to be better at what he does for me to be concerned anyway, and Carson, well, whatever. Sorry Carson. But it feels like Conan deserves a lot better from NBC.
No, I don’t blame Leno for this debacle. I think that NBC didn’t want him to go to another network (FOX most likely) and compete against their show. How many of us would say yes, I definitely want to retire, and then five years later have a different idea of how to spend the rest of your life? Things change in five years, and I’m not saying that Leno was innocent in all of this, but when NBC approached him with this idea (because I don’t think he pulled it out of thin air), he jumped at the opportunity to stay at NBC both because of his reputation and fan base there, and the millions of dollars I’m sure he’s receiving. Do I think he maliciously thought ‘This definitely screws over Conan’? No. I don’t even think he would have done it if NBC hadn’t offered. In fact, by what I can tell, he would have been ready to go to a different network and that scared the crap out of NBC.
My deal is that I’m afraid of what this means for shows like Medium, Law & Order and Chuck. I know that personally I don’t care to see Jay Leno invade prime time, and I don’t think the ratings will be as successful as NBC is hoping. He averages around 4.8 million viewers and in prime time, shows with ratings like that get canceled quickly. I’ll call NBC a hypocrite if they cancel Chuck which hits a rating average of about 7.28 million. I feel like this is a hit to Conan, as if NBC is saying ‘you know, we don’t really trust you at the helm of this show, so we’re going to keep the current face of The Tonight Show and if you’re successful, then it’s even better for us’.
So what do you think about all of this? How do you feel regarding Leno’s move? Do you blame him, or do you blame the greedy network? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Brittany is an aspiring television critic currently living in Oklahoma. Catch her weekly reviews of Heroes, Mad Men, and more at TheTwoCents.com