‘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?





A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.