Dec 30, 2007

The Leno Situation: Solved By Me

The late night shows come back on this week, so, I'm pushing up an article I had a week or so ago up to make it feel a little more "relevant."

Jeff Zucker, Fred Silverman, all you high muckity-mucks at NBC Universal, I have single-handedly solved "the Leno situation." It would involve a lot of sacrifices, but, in effect, it will not only keep Leno in the NBC Universal family but will also help cement the network's future for at least another decade or so.

To recap the "situation" for those that aren't aware, about four years ago, Jay Leno announced that he was leaving The Tonight Show and NBC named Conan O'Brien as the successor beginning in fall 2009. At the time, everything seemed cool. 2009 seemed like it was far away, and perhaps Leno felt that he'd be running out of steam by the time 2009 got here. Now, 2009 is practically next year. Leno is still getting high ratings on The Tonight Show and, though not directly, feeling as if he's being pushed out of his job for no reason (ah, karma is such a beast, ain't it?). Meanwhile, Conan still brings in the younger demographics that NBC hopes will come to The Tonight Show in 2009. Americans that aren't on either coast (some call them "flyover states" and others see them as "permanently red") aren't exactly gravitating to the antics of the younger, Harvard-educated, northerner. They see Leno as a nightcap, a perfect, safe end to an eventful day and Conan as a baffoon, a clown not worthy of sitting in Johnny Carson's throne, currently occupied by Leno.

I'm going to do something that a lot of people aren't doing. I'm going to defend Conan O'Brien. Conan is a talented comedy writer that has created a persona that is a combination of pure geekiness and intelligence. Yeah, Conan's smart. Harvard isn't exactly known as a party school, you know. Those that only see the self-depricating, clownish side of Conan don't see the talented individual that not only acknowledges the history and legacy of NBC late-night programming, but honors and respects it. Remember, NBC asked HIM, not Leno, to host the special celebrating NBC late-night programming a couple of years ago. Conan knows that he has a legacy to live up to, and I feel that he will. Truth be told, I think NBC was grooming Conan to be the Tonight Show successor about six years into his run on Late Night when he began to mature as a host.

People are always going to compare whoever the Tonight Show host is to Johnny Carson. Now, you may think of this as sacrilegious on my part, but I feel that Conan O'Brien is the heir apparent to the legacy of Johnny Carson. There are three hands in that aspect. Jay Leno is the physical successor to Johnny Carson. He was the man who currently sits where Johnny once sat. Does that mean that he should have? Absolutely not. Yes, he's good at hosting the Tonight Show, but he's not the one who should have been there in the first place. That distinction goes to David Letterman, host of Late Show and the true spiritual successor to the legacy of Johnny Carson. Letterman has not only cemented himself as a fixture on late-night progamming for almost three decades, but he has commanded the respect of generations of comedians and comedy writers, including the guy who's currently hosting his older show, Conan O'Brien.

Now, preventing any tragedy, digital television transition nightmare, or end-of-the-world scenario, Conan O'Brien will become the host of The Tonight Show in fall 2009. NBC wants to keep Jay Leno around because he still has a large audience and is still a marketable name. Plus, they don't want to lose him to Fox, who hasn't thought about late-night programming since the cancellation of The Chevy Chase Show. They know a game show would be an insult, though in his parodies of Jeopardy and Jaywalking All-Stars competitions prove he can hang with the best of them. And the thinking is that there's no space on the NBC lineup for any kind of nightly programming.

Of course, like most network executives, they're wrong, and I'm going to tell them WHY they're wrong.

You know that much ballyhooed fourth hour of The Today Show? It can go. It's not necessary and it's just a wasted, unnecessary hour. They've stretched a two-hour show farther than they should have, and it shows. Here's a plan. NBC could still own that hour, but that hour doesn't have to be in the morning. In fact, I have a perfect place for the NBC-owned hour:


It's a perfect bridge between the Nightly News and the Primetime lineup that I'm surprised networks haven't used in recent years. Syndication, or at least the remnants of what was a great syndication era, currently fills the slot with game shows, news shows, recent sitcoms, and court shows. They're fine and all, but perhaps the time is right for something old to return. A talk/variety show taking a cue from Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas that has celebrities, politicians, and extraordinary individuals as well as celebrating the everyday world in comedic fashion. In short, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

But make it live on the East Coast (well, "live" in the 21st century, meaning a five-second delay in case people be too real for the censors). And don't call it The Tonight Show. Call it . . . I don't know, Leno Live or The Live Show With Jay Leno. That'd be about four in the East and the day is pretty much over and everybody's settling in at home. Yeah, Leno would have to work harder and a little faster to get a live program ready, but he is a professional, and if anybody could pull it off, he could. Keep all the sketches from The Tonight Show intact (Headlines and Jaywalking, among others). In short, it'd be his old show in a new environment and with a more wide-awake audience seguing into NBC's primetime lineup, a lineup that would only grow with this addition to programming. Plus, the network could easily repurpose Leno's new show either on USA at 11 PM for those who want to see Leno in late nights or in the post-Last Call slot on NBC.

Leno would continue doing a talk show on NBC. Conan could do The Tonight Show his way. The only problem NBC should have now in regards to the late-night programming situation in 2009 would be who will fill the seat vacated by Conan. I have my own theories, but that's for another time.

No comments: