Does Late Night Still Matter? Jay V. Conan and the Death of Network Television

I began this series on the state of late-night network television because of a once-in-a-generation changing of the guard at that broadcast institution, NBC’s The Tonight Show. What better time to do a series like this than when media attention again turned toward the formerly premiere entertainment format of late-night talkers?

Four months later, the word serendipity does not do justice to the timing of this series. Speaking for myself, I can’t express to you my own personal gratitude at the fact that NBC spared me the task of having to watch a week of The Jay Leno Show. Thank you very much, Mr. Zucker.

Everyone knows what happened. NBC, over the course of only a few months, managed to make an absolute train wreck out of one of their only marketable assets, their historic domination of late-night television. By deciding to bring Leno back to his Tonight Show chair, NBC has formally declared that they have no idea how to stave off the steady and irreversible decline of broadcast television as we knew it. To add insult to injury, NBC irreparably damaged the image of Leno while ensuring that Conan O’Brien’s next venture will enjoy the kind of prolonged honeymoon it refused to grant.

Congratulations, NBC. Your decision-making and communication skills will be a case study in ‘what not to do’ at MBA classes from Cambridge to Kuala Lumpur.

NBC acted out of desperation. Its been the broadcast equivalent of the worst team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference ever since the departure of Seinfeld and Friends. It needed to take risks, and feared that Leno might eventually return to one of its competitors. Thus, The Jay Leno Show.

The ratings on Leno’s 10:00PM show barely broke what in the evening talker biz they call the Chevy Chase Line. America didn’t want to watch a Leno free-form variety show at a time it reserved for formula serials like C.S.I.. NBC offered America a morning Diet Coke when America only wanted coffee.

The idea never had a chance at success. If you’re going to make a bold move like this, NBC should have gone all the way in. Ask someone like Ben Stiller or Judd Apatow, someone with broadcast experience and cache with a younger demographic to put together a nightly variety show. That someone would most likely have told NBC that the best person for this job was already on their payroll: one Mr. O’Brien.

Unfortunately, four years ago NBC promised O’Brien that he would become The Tonight Show host as soon as Leno’s contract ended. NBC stuck with O’Brien through his awkward first two years and didn’t want to see him leap to a competitor where he could be a threat. We call all of this ‘wanting to have your cake and eat it, too.’

Alas, as happens most of the time in these situations, NBC got no dessert at all.

NBC is not alone in its poor decision-making. All of the major pop culture industries — music, television, film, and print media — have either seen profits precipitously decline or their very existences threatened. The blame for all of this can be laid on corporate decision-making which failed to recognize that the only way to monetize pop is to stay current and embrace the new.

Major corporations purchased entertainment outlets in the ’60s and ’70s because it granted them control over content and a kind of glamor that manufacturing microwave ovens could never produce. For a good long stretch, their investments paid off. Mass media outlets discovered that every time they succeeded in marketing a new product to baby boomers, money poured in. Later, those same boomers would rise to executive status in these media entities and continue the same practices.

Their major corporate parents couldn’t just keep well enough alone, though. Corporations need to grow and own to survive. These corporations used their Washington assets to push through legislation that allowed them to purchase and operate radio and TV stations in excess of previous regulations.

While the corporations focused on owning the most analog outlets, beneath their noses and above their heads a brand new digital technology strung itself across the country. They could not ignore it.

Unfortuantely, they never took the chance to understand it, either. The boomers in charge of these corporations thought they knew everything, and that was their fatal flaw. Through the wires which surrounded them, they would hang themselves.

The corporations decided that the best way to adapt to new technology was to protect themselves from it legally. They filed lawsuits, pushed for protective legislation, and painted those individuals who could successfully navigate the brave new digital world as criminals.

Think about how the Internet and its offshoots have been covered by corporate media. Everyone who spends too much time on it is a criminal, either stealing or trying to pervert children. The government secretly uses it to spy on you. The boomer corporate parents present broadband Internet connectivity as the greatest threat to American values since communism.

The result? A new 18-35 demographic which pays very little attention to the message and products of corporate-owned media entities. A generation behind them that doesn’t even know what an analog culture was like. A generation that owns the means of digital distribution. Who needs a broadcast network when you are your own network?

Which brings us back to O’Brien and Leno. There must be a suit somewhere in Rockefeller Center who reads the writing on the wall. The days of broad appeal are over. We are all much more discerning pop consumers, now. Pushing Leno to the side was the right move. He appealed to yesterday’s viewers.

O’Brien appeals to tomorrow’s viewers. Sure, he never would pull in the kind of ad revenue Leno did in his prime. Nobody will do that with a talker ever again. The O’Brien Tonight Show signaled to the smart appreciator of comedy that NBC wanted to make the program once again the showcase for developing talent, as it was with Carson. NBC demonstrated that maybe, unlike its dinosaur peers, it understood that the phrase ‘content is king’ is not just a buzz phrase said by brain-dead ad drones.

As I wrote this my local PBS newscast aired a segment on a Chicago journalist who moved to New Delhi to get a job. His new boss at The Indian Express, when asked to reflect on the death of print media in America, shared a profound truth to the correspondent, a truth that young media execs should take to heart: “The market for B- material is rapidly shrinking.” Except, it seems, at NBC.

Meet the new Tonight Show. Same as the old one.