Monday, January 18, 2010

Late Night

I used to watch a lot of late night television. Before Dave moved to CBS, I was a die-hard Letterman fan. Late Night with David Letterman was the greatest late-night talk show of all time, bar none.

If you don't know the story, here's what happened. Johnny Carson was the undisputed king of late night. The other networks were so intimidated by his numbers they didn't dare program similar shows. They cross programmed, showing "Macmillan and Wife" and "Columbo" reruns. Johnny surprised the network by announcing his retirement live at an affiliates meeting. He had been working 3-4 day weeks for a while and had several "guest hosts" such as Bill Cosby and Joan Rivers, but lately the seat had been most often filled by Jay Leno.

David Letterman assumed he would get the Carson show when Johnny retired. The network had other ideas. Letterman got insane numbers for a show that started after midnight eastern. NBC was very greedy and didn't want to lose those numbers, so they gave the Tonight Show to Jay Leno.

Letterman was pissed, and chose to leave the network. There were some back-room deals where NBC would agree to give Letterman the show if Jay faltered, but Letterman decided his best deal was to take a show opposite the Tonight show on CBS.

Letterman regularly beat Jay Leno in that time slot for 3 years, but Leno steadily built his own audience and eventually took over first place in the ratings. "The Tonight Show" was "the show" for late night once more.

Letterman never did a show as good as "Late Night" again. He tempered his comedy for the older audiences that watch the earlier show. He changed his style, lost his edginess. "The Late Show" has always been a watered-down version of "Late Night."

Five and a half years ago Jay Leno announced he was going to retire in five years. NBC wanted to avoid the unpleasantness that occurred when Johnny retired, so they signed a deal to give Conan O'Brien, who had built a very solid show with good ratings and excellent demographics "The Tonight Show." Conan's viewers, much like David Letterman's original show, attracted YOUNG PEOPLE. People over a certain age LITERALLY DO NOT COUNT to advertisers. In other words, Jay Leno's audience.

Conan's deal was that he'd get "The Tonight Show" or NBC would pay him $40 Million. NBC figured it was no big deal to make the number crazy because Jay was going to retire and by then his show would have fallen in the ratings. Conan would continue to do a successful show for five years and then he would step in for the faltering Jay Leno with a younger more desirable demographic. What could go wrong?

Jay Leno changed his mind. He didn't want to retire. His numbers were still fantastic, even better than five years ago. And Leno is a workaholic. Unlike Carson he never took nights off. He never stopped working on the show to make it more and more popular. He had taken Johnny's show and made it his own. He wasn't about to give it up.

So NBC was in a tough spot. They simply couldn't afford to give Conan forty mil, especially during a recession and with NBC last among networks, by far. There are literally no successful shows on the network after Heroes, The Office and 30 Rock. Nothing.

Someone at NBC came up with a brilliant idea. We'll give Conan "The Tonight Show" and avoid paying him $40 Million, and we'll replace all the failing 10pm dramas with Jay Leno. Yes, we will not get great ratings, but we aren't anyway and this show costs 10% of all those pricey one-hour dramas. Problem solved!

What they didn't count on was rebellion from the affiliates. While NBC didn't care whether Jay's 10pm show got ratings, the affiliates live and die off those 10pm dramas for their lead-in audience. See, it turns out nobody actually chooses to watch one local news program over another. I know, you think you have your favorite, but in reality Americans are too lazy to reach for the remote and change the channel. They watch whatever news program is on after the 10pm program they watched.

And Jay Leno's lousy ratings were killing the local news broadcasts. NBC can't have their affiliates upset with them, so they did the predictably chicken-shit move and gave Jay Leno his time slot back. How they are going to pull five hour-long dramas out of their ass to fill the spots is beyond me. They haven't successfully had one since ER, and they rode that pony for twenty years. Michael Crichton is dead. Now what, NBC?

And Conan has to hit the road. He will settle for something between 20 and 40 million dollars from NBC (Go General Electric stock!) so don't feel too bad for him, but he isn't likely to get another 11:30 talk show, not if he has to compete with Letterman AND Leno for an audience. Fox is crazy, but I'm not sure they're THAT crazy.

But who knows? Maybe an 11:00 Fox show will actually beat the shows delayed by the local news. I mean, the local news is really shit, right? I don't know anyone who likes it. Everyone says they hate it but they have to know the weather. NOAA.GOV anybody? Srsly.

And what do I watch? I only really enjoy one late night comedy show, the incredibly self-derisive Craig Ferguson vehicle "The Late Late Show." He even calls himself "the Scottish Conan guy." The thing I like about Ferguson is that he's funny. He's led an interesting life and when he talks about himself it's more interesting than anything else on the show. His experiences from being a musician, being on the Drew Carey show and his alcoholism are all interesting and very entertaining. He's very cynical about show business while enjoying the hell out of himself in his small part of it. He seems to have genuine joy in silliness that he surrounds himself with.

Screw Conan, Jay, Dave and both Jimmys (Had I known that Kimmel's show was directed by Bobcat Goldthwait I might have checked it out.) Check out Craig. He's an acquired taste, for certain. But he's genuine. I like genuine.


It's true that Jay Leno never really wanted to retire in 2009. When NBC made the deal with Conan Jay agreed to step aside because that's how Jay is. He's always done whatever NBC wanted. That's how he got the job over Letterman. NBC/GE felt he was "more loyal." It might have had something to do with Letterman calling GE executives "pinheads" every night on their own network.

Jay was too nice too say in 2005 that he didn't want to give up "The Tonight Show," and when he got some leverage in 2009 he said as much. But, still being the NBC lackey, he agreed to this 10pm strategy as a consolation prize.


Riverrun said...

great summary. I have always wondered the history behind this. thanks for putting the facts in one place!

I guess I am too young :(

HighOnPoker said...

You have some of your history wrong. Conan's contract was ending five years ago and since he was doing so well, NBC wanted to keep him around. He wanted the Tonight Show, so the agreement was that Conan would stay put for 5 years and get the Tonight Show. Jay Leno had just resigned previous to this for 5 years, so the deal with Conan essentially would result in Jay's termination at the end of his 2004-2009 contract. Jay didn't want to retire. He's too much of a workaholic for that.

Over the next five years, though, Leno held up and Conan began to slip. Whereas in 2004, Conan was the hot ticket, by 2009, he had become old hat, and Leno still had big ratings. But it was already too late for NBC because of the deals made in 2004, so NBC scrambled, feared for losing Jay to a competitor and arranged to hand over 10pm five nights a week.

DuggleBogey said...

Actually, IMO Jay Leno was more of a lackey, and when NBC came to him and said "You're going to retire in 5 years" he said "Okay, whatever you say."

I don't think Leno is a bad guy in this, but he has always been an NBC kissass, which is why he got the job over Letterman in the first place. Especially considering Dick Ebersol's involvement.

If Jay had stood up to NBC in the first place and refused to take this "forced" retirement, he wouldn't look like the bad guy now forcing Conan out.

Conan should have..

Fuck it, I'm going to do another post about this.

pokerguy2200 said...

You need to go back before Johnny to get the "real" stars of late night. Jack Parr and Steve Allen dominated the late hour and led to Johnnys success at following them. Don't get me wrong, Johnny was the "king" of late night but the porgrams at that hour would not have happened if Parr and Allen didn't pave the way.

DuggleBogey said...