by pat howard

When the music stops

In Uncategorized on January 8, 2010 at 11:59 am

Rumor has it NBC is abandoning ship on this Jay Leno Show experiment — or at least rearranging the deck chairs. But returning Leno to his 11:35p/10:35c timeslot, even in a condensed 30-minute format, still seems like a major step backward.

I’m 24, and sadly my earliest memories of the Tonight Show feature Jay Leno. I recall the fanfare Johnny Carson’s sendoff received, but I completely missed his late night empire. For most of my life, Leno’s Tonight Show preceded Conan O’Brien’s Late Night.

The decision in the middle of the last decade to create a succession plan seemed to come out of nowhere. It was not because Leno wanted to retire (the opposite is actually true) or his Tonight Show was flagging (he was handily besting Letterman). If anything, O’Brien’s impatience with the later hour of his program or NBC’s famous bungling of the Carson-Leno transition, which sent Letterman packing to rival CBS, fueled these seemingly arbitrary decisions.

From my couch, NBC’s collective recent programming choices suggest a firm commitment to its status as a fourth place network, a far cry from its ’90s dominance. TV history shows that the networks take turns passing the first-place baton around every seven or eight years, so NBC was bound for an upset once its powerhouse Thursday lineup (Friends, Seinfeld, ER) ran out of steam. But with DVDs, DVRs, and Hulu now competing for the same eyeballs, the prime time business has possibly changed more since the turn of this century than at any time since its inception.

NBC can boast the Law & Order franchise, The Biggest Loser, and Sunday Night Football among its enduring programming options. Attempts to remake everything under the sun in recent years (Knight Rider, Bionic Woman, the upcoming Rockford Files) have met with little interest. So the network gave up and instead decided to give Leno five hours a week.

People either love Leno or hate him. In either case, folks were used to seeing or hearing him as they got ready for bed each night. Now NBC is taking another stab at rearranging the deck chairs, and restoring the previous succession order.

I’d pat them on the back for at least having attempted an original and courageous programming strategy…but that’s not what this was. The Jay Leno Show was Leno’s Tonight Show an arbitrary ninety minutes early. Why do it at 10p/9c versus 8p/7c? Why not just throw a fifth hour of Today into prime time, for that matter?

It is here that the current broadcast model has reached a detente with itself. Its best hope is a radical new approach, a pitch we haven’t heard that could just as likely fail as it could succeed. But that’s something no one will take a gamble on, because of its very potential as an unproven, expensive, and high profile failure.

Television will continue to exist. In ten years, it will assuredly look different, and not just because of 3D. I’m not willing to bet that this broadcast model will go away…it’ll more likely evolve into something else.

But NBC’s late night game of musical chairs will turn out to have been a diversion. The network basically admitted it could run five hours a week of ice melting, come in fourth most of the time, and still make a profit. Who cares if people foster ill will toward our network, or whether they stick around for the late news? When the music stops and the chairs are rearranged again, NBC will be counting its dwindling pile of money, while affiliates and viewers are left holding the bag.

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