Conan O'Brien Out as Tonight Show Host

Jay Leno in explaining the mess that is the current late night debacle at NBC, comes off as something akin to Phil Hartman’s caveman lawyer character on SNL.  In reality though, Leno never loses.  Since 2004, NBC has planned to can Leno in favor of the younger and hipper O’Brien.  Then someone had the grand idea to load Jay into the 10p slot to save money and test the popularity of the longtime host at a time when employed adults are watching TV.

If it didn’t work, buh-bye Jay.  Really?  Not quite.  Leno has survived, and O’Brien gets the buyout.

Conan’s final Tonight Show will air tomorrow night on NBC affiliates, and Leno will slide back into his late night seat beginning Monday, March 1.  For his trouble, Conan will receive $33-million.  His staff will split an extra $12-million in severance.  February will be dominated by NBC’s Winter Olympics Coverage.

Leno averaged virtually the same audience he enjoyed as the late night champ – 5.2 million viewers.  There are many more viewers available at the time, so the show was seen as an audience failure by affiliates and the network.  “The Mentalist” on CBS ot the same time averages 17-million.  That lack of lead-in left NBC affiliate newscasts with far fewer viewers during their cash cow newscasts.

Those affiliates had become so enraged with the audience bloodbath that many had threatened to launch local programming in lieu of Leno to try to recoup some of that money.

So NBC looks like a company run by chimpanzees, and the affiliates will hope that the chimps have the brains to gather viewers in larger numbers so the financial bleeding can stop.

The most amazing part of this drama is not that the NBC executives made this colossal blunder, that Leno’s show failed to attract ratings, or that affiliates were ready to jump ship.  It’s that Leno is the survivor, as he always seems to be.  He appears goofy and affable, but when the chips are down he obviously knows how to play the cut-throat behind the scenes game better than David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and the NBC executives.  How this unfolded will be revealed over the next few month, but the one thing we know is that Leno played the right cards at the right time to be able to keep his gig.  He did the same thing in getting the Tonight Show instead of Letterman, and then again when the show initially tanked.

O’Brien won’t be crying poor, but he’s going to be sitting at home next week while Leno plans his return.

NBC will air some reality shows and established dramas to fill the 10p-11p void left by Leno’s departure.

Here is a really good rule.  It takes a great personality driven show up to two years to establish audience traction.  That’s life in broadcasting.  O’Brien foundered as the host of Late Night for months and months before finally attracting respectable ratings.  Same with Letterman.  Same with Leno.  And on and on.  Hell, the same thing happened with Indianapolis’ Bob & Tom.  They were nearly fired a year in.  Building habitual viewing and listening takes time, and programmers need to be committed to ride out the worst case scenario when they launch a show.  And they better be right.

NBC made a series of mistakes, but their biggest was in not establishing reasonable expectations in the affiliate community.  There was no way this kind of radical change was going to be immediately embraced by a 10-million plus level of audience.  The routine for millions of viewers in the Eastern and Western Time Zones  is to head to the bedroom at 10p, watch a drama, and go to sleep.  Leno was a departure from that routine, and people don’t like change done to them.  They went elsewhere.  Eventually, Leno would have found the audience.  The show was pretty good, and good usually wins, especially over dreck like CSI-Miami and CSI-New York.

I’m no fan of Leno’s middle of the road comedy and planned spontaneity, but the fault was with the programmers whose hubris led to unreasonable expectations.

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