Posted by: The moderator | January 8, 2010

Leno in Limbo

Everyone knew NBC’s experiment with late night programming during primetime would leave someone burned. Most thought that Leno’s show would run for a while as a cost-cutting device for NBC and eventually Leno would be cut loose to free up time for new dramas. But now the network has created some drama of its own.

Looks like the NBC affiliates around the country have forced NBC’s hand after seeing their nightly local news viewership (and advertising profits) dry up. They blame Leno’s weak audience, which serves as the local news lead-in Monday through Friday, and want a stronger lineup pronto.NBC logo

Meanwhile, Conan O’Brien has been flailing around with the Tonight Show, losing each night to CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman by 2 million viewers. Leno had nearly always won against Letterman and Leno’s monologue is still considered far superior to Conan’s.

NBC probably wishes they could undo the Tonight Show change they made in June, but unfortunately they made iron-clad contracts with the two stars with large penalty payouts if NBC pulls the plug on one of them. So NBC’s solution is to move Leno back to his old time slot after the local news and shorten it to 30 minutes. It would still be called The Jay Leno Show and would serve mainly as a lead-in to Conan’s Tonight Show, which would remain unchanged in format and name, although at a later start time. This supposedly will avoid breaking either star’s contract.

In my mind, NBC’s plans smack of heartless manipulation. They’re keeping Leno around simply because he has better contacts at NBC and a stronger track record than Conan, even though they’ve already declared Leno to be old news and haven’t given Conan the same amount of time they gave Leno to perfect his show in the 1990s. While I’m not a fan of Conan’s humor and was disappointed when NBC crowned him the king of the Tonight Show, I don’t think it’s fair to downgrade him (and the legendary Tonight Show) to a later time slot simply because Leno and the network made a mistake.

It feels like NBC wants to push one of them out, but can’t because of both contractual obligations and the fear that one might start a competing program on another network, just as David Letterman did in the 1990s. Leno joked about this in his Thursday monologue, saying that “it will give us time to do some traveling. I understand that Fox is beautiful this time of year.”

My money is on one of the two stars jumping ship for either ABC or Fox. With all of NBC’s shady deal-breaking, I wouldn’t be surprised if both stars eventually ditch NBC for another network, leaving the old peacock with nobody in late night after the Winter Olympics end (except Jimmy Fallon and Carson Daly, but they don’t count).

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