Television

‘The Jay Leno Show': Finally NBC does something right

Aaron Barnhart
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

To judge from the reactions, you would think that Conan O'Brien had been put in handcuffs and driven off to the courthouse on corruption charges.

NBC executives, desperate to avoid a repeat of the messy 1992 divorce with David Letterman, talked Jay Leno into staying. In exchange, Leno will get to keep his top billing at the network. NBC will get a fourth hour of its wildly successful late-night franchise with "The Jay Leno Show," weeknights at 10 p.m. EST starting next fall.

And O'Brien avoids the bloody confrontation that would have gone down in 2010 when Leno popped up again at ABC and started going head-to-head against "The Tonight Show."

All good, right? Instead, NBC's move was immediately and roundly denounced.

Creatives - specifically, the people who write scripted hours for television - hated it. Leno, after all, just saved NBC millions of dollars that it would have had to invest in scripted shows to fill those five hours that "The Jay Leno Show" will take up starting next fall.

Al Jean, the showrunner of "The Simpsons," joked at a conference the next day that NBC should bring back Johnny Carson and put him on at 9.

Investors in GE, the parent company of NBC, grumbled that the network was pursuing short-term cost savings at the expense of long-term network stature. Their pessimism was confirmed by CBS chief Leslie Moonves, who told a business lunch last week that his Monday night show, "CSI: Miami," would do a weekly salsa dance on "The Jay Leno Show."

I agree there are caution signs ahead for NBC in giving a prime-time slot to Leno. Still, it's not like there was a bright outcome to letting its biggest star walk, either. And this schedule shuffle has other benefits.

Leno's audience was feeling mighty bait-and-switched, with NBC forcing O'Brien on them while keeping Leno on the sidelines (he would've been off the air at least six months before his old contract expired). This reduces that ill will and puts Leno on at a more viewer-friendly hour.

With Leno, NBC affiliates get a sure, stable lead-in to their late local news five nights a week. Thursdays - when "The Office" and "30 Rock" will lead into "The Jay Leno Show" - could be huge. On the other hand, the "Law & Orders" will have to move to 9 p.m. EST, which could hurt viewership.

And whatever insult this might be to Conan O'Brien, this ensures "The Tonight Show" will remain No. 1. "No matter what Conan says, this diminishes his ascension," wrote my colleague at the San Francisco Chronicle, Tim Goodman. "Leno might have hurt Conan's ratings head-to-head, but here he takes away all the best guests, maintains a higher profile (and) diminishes the importance of 'The Tonight Show.' "

Actually, I doubt that any more could be done to diminish O'Brien's ascension than the tepid reception it has gotten in the half decade since it was announced. (Trust me - as someone who's been swimming upstream all these years telling people that nobody makes me laugh like Conan, I am an excellent gauge of the current.)

Plus, I'm guessing O'Brien is over it. I'm guessing he'll even accept that "The Tonight Show" is, for now, a diminished asset ... just like it was diminished when Steve Allen left it to do a weekly prime-time variety program for NBC, and just like it was diminished when Jack Paar left it to do a weekly prime-time variety program for, well, NBC.

Above all, Conan is probably figuring that in 10 years Jay will be working in Vegas while he'll still be hosting "The Tonight Show." So diminish that.

As for that best-guest theory, it's bunk, according to Sue Trowbridge, who has been supplying late-night guest lineups to my weekly TV Barn newsletter since 1994 (that is not a typo).

"I have noticed over the years how most guests get booked on multiple shows," she told me. "They make the rounds when they have a project to promote."

Which means, as Mr. Carson said long ago, it all comes down to that guy behind the desk.

Leno confirmed last week that he was planning to go to ABC and make NBC pay for asking him to step down. But now there's been an intervention, and peace. Jay and Conan will be stepping up to larger paychecks. Their fan bases are placated. "Nightline" will live to see another day.

And there will be five fewer hours of prime-time programming next season from the brain trust that brought you "Lipstick Jungle."

How exactly is this a bad move?

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