Last night and today NBC’s Late Night issues have become the talk of the town. The story in a nutshell is pretty simple. NBC has been a faltering network for a while, going from #1 to the last place network over the course of a couple years. The one area where NBC was dominant was the late night slot, with the one, two punch of Leno and Conan beating CBS and ABC’s efforts. One has to wonder how long that dominance would have lasted given NBC’s continual decline, but before any moves were made that was the reality of the situation.


Several years ago Leno agreed that he would step down at the end of 2009, go out on top and call it a career while handing the reigns over to his successor Conan O’Brien. Everyone, most notable Conan fans, were happy with this. Jay had a good run and Leno was supposedly going to do the right thing and let his successor who had been doing the Late Night gig for 15 years have his spot. If you’re old enough to remember Carson’s Tonight show, he wanted to hand the reigns over to Letterman, but Leno ended up with the spot sending Letterman to CBS and kicking off the late night wars to begin with.

This was SUPPOSED to be a smooth transaction, but from the beginning Leno has caused issues. After agreeing to this deal, Leno suddenly decided he needed another couple hundred vintage cars and refused to give up his job. He basically told NBC that if they went through with this, he would head to FOX or ABC and run opposite the Tonight Show, which would no doubt, effect Conan’s ratings.

NBC fearing that Leno who was now backing out of their deal, would try to sabotage the Tonight Show, offered up a new solution that would see Leno get a 10:00 show prior to the Tonight Show. I wrote about this back in 2008 that it was a disastrous idea here, and that Leno would be a massive failure at the 10PM slot and would no doubt bring Conan down with him.

The network loved the idea as it would save them $500 million dollars a year because Leno would be taking up 5 daily 1 hour slots on their prime time lineup, that they normally would have to fill with scripted drama (think Law & Order) and that’s much more costly to produce than Leno’s show. So that’s what happened, Conan got to go up an hour, Fallon was brought in to replace Conan and suddenly Leno was on at 10PM.

The problem with running 4 hours of talk TV was almost immediately imminent. NBC offers up Leno, Conan, Fallon and then Carson Daily, whilst CBS has Letterman and Feguson, ABC has Kimmel and now TBS even has George Lopez in the mix, not to mention Comedy Central running their faux news programs at this hour. The end result is that you have a LOT of television programs vying for guests.

In the world of talk shows, guests are the most important aspect. Although Conan had been handed the keys to the Tonight Show, he hadn’t been handed the keys to the Tonight Show’s guest lineup. Instead Conan was getting the same B-grade guests he was getting when he had Late Night. To make matters worse, Conan was now going up against Letterman, who for the first few months stacked his deck with some of the best guests around. This quickly saw Conan’s lead over Letterman fade away.

And then there was Leno, who took the better guests away from Conan and also became Conan’s lead-in. While Letterman gets a lead-in from a highly rated TV show, Conan O’Brien is forced to get a lead-in from Jay Leno. NBC was fine with whatever ratings Leno put in, because they set the bar so low for him. The idea being that even if Leno was a ratings failure, he would still be worth it because of how much money he would save the network.

But that’s not exactly what happened. Even though the bar for Leno was set so low, Leno managed to go even lower. And for a while Conan was still competing and beating Letterman in all the key demos, but as Leno’s ratings dropped so did the effect wear on Conan. Not only did Conan now have to contend with Jay Leno taking the pick of the guests, now he had Leno offering him a lead-in audience that was miniscule in comparison to what other Late Night hosts were getting.

So the news came yesterday first that Leno was finally fired. Everyone took it in stride, since it was a long time coming. Leno’s project was a disaster and hopefully NBC would be able to rebuild the Tonight Show brand with Conan at the helm now that the albatross known as Jay Leno was gone… Except then the story changed and the rumors began to be around that Leno was only done at 10PM and that NBC was floating the idea of putting Leno back up against Letterman, presumably in hopes that Leno would suddenly go back to beating Letterman and all would be right with the world.

That idea may or may not have been true as rumors then said that Leno would not take over the Tonight Show, but that Leno would get a half hour show at 11PM and then Conan would start at 11:30 on the Tonight Show. That seems to be the most plausible idea, but apparently no one is happy. Conan understandably has been neutered from the getgo by Leno’s shenanigans and despite Leno’s ratings dominance for years, if anyone’s to blame for Leno’s show failing, it’s Leno. Conan was never expected to beat Letterman right off, the plan was for Conan to build an audience long term, just as Leno had prior. But all that was squashed when the 800 pound gorilla Leno stayed on NBC.

Now no one seems to know what’s going to happen. Leno lambasted NBC last night on his talk show, while Letterman and Feguson have poked some fun at NBC’s idiocy on their shows. Conan has remained largely mum, as he’s still fighting the uphill battle of making an entertaining show while having to fight Leno on his own network. And through it all, I’m still looking for one single solitary person under the age of 45 that finds Leno even remotely funny.

Yesterday Twitter and the blogs were alive with Conan fans, outraged that their favorite TV show host was yet again getting the shaft by the dolts at NBC. What does the future hold? It’s hard to say, but rest assured so long as there is unfunny in the world, Jay Leno will still be trying to hog a spotlight he never should have had in the first place.

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