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January 19, 2010

NBC's Leno/O'Brien Debacle: Audiences Chuckle, Letterman Laughs

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This NBC Leno/O'Brien late night brouhaha is better than "All My Children" in its heyday. It's got everything:

  • Corporate blunders of epic proportions.
  • Millionaires fighting it out over turf.
  • Audiences protesting and taking sides.
  • Two distinct personalities trapped in a legal, corporate morass.
  • A peanut gallery of one, cackling about how payback is a bitch.

First, a little background.  Five years ago, NBC told Jay Leno, "In five years we're replacing you with Conan O'Brien, 'cause if we don't seal him up now, he's going to the competition.  Your audience is old and replaceable and we want Conan's following of 15-29-year-old frat boys who love guys with tilted red hair."

Jay was like, "But I'm number one!"

NBC was like, "But that won't last so you're out!"

Jay was like, "Okay, I'll go home to work on my 500 classic cars, see ya later, peacock."

David Letterman watched from afar.

As the time drew near for Conan to take over "The Tonight Show," NBC got colder feet than a groom at the altar.  They wondered if Jay would really go home and work on his 500 classic cars, or whether he might not skip to ABC and give Conan a run.

More and more critics and audience members scratched their heads and asked, "Why is NBC kicking out Leno in 2009?  He's still number one!"  NBC flew into an executive panic.

They thought, "In primetime we're suffering from a fatal case of no-hit-itis, and we seriously need to save some money.  We've got all those Olympics to pay for!"

Led by NBC/Universal CEO Jeff Zucker, the suits figured out a way to save money and also keep Jay out of ABC's clutches.

So they called up executive producer Dick Wolf and said, "Take your 'Law & Order' SUV, SVI, and UVS and your expensive, useless writers and scram! We're putting Leno in your 10PM time slot five nights a week."

I don't know what Dick Wolf said, but I'm sure it was unprintable.

Then the suits, led by Jeff Zucker, sat around congratulating themselves on a brilliant programming move.

It was bold!  It was brash!

It was stupid!

I warned you, NBC!

After five months, Leno's un-funny prime-time show tanked, O'Brien's un-funny 11:35 "Tonight Show" tanked, and NBC's affiliates started screaming like a 6-year-old who's just found out there's no Santa Claus.

David Letterman watched and chuckled from afar.

Leno, with his old and unwanted audience is indeed returning to 11:35.  That means O'Brien is out, out, out -- and all that's left is to figure how much NBC will have to shell out to satisfy his hefty contract.

According to Leno himself, a final deal with O'Brien could be reached later today.

Oh and Dick Wolf's unwanted "Law and Order" SUVs, VSIs and UVSes, with their pesky, unnecessary writers?  They're coming back to 10 o'clock in primetime.

Oh, and all that money NBC saved?  It's going for a down payment on O'Brien's own collection of 500 classic cars.

Oh, and all those primetime hours NBC has to fill?  They have to start producing new pilots, pronto.

Why is the public so caught up in this stuff?

Because it's fun.

Yeah, you heard me.  It's fun to see two rich white guys brought down a peg or two over a couple of hours on television.  There's no death, or famine, or (like in the case of Britney Spears) mental illness involved.  It's all about ego and money and power and money.

Not only that, creatively it's been a godsend for O'Brien.  I've never seen him funnier than he's been in the last two weeks. 

I guess it took near extinction for him to find the funny.

My favorite part, though?  Letterman.

David Letterman watches, laughs out loud and rubs it in.  I'd say he's earned it.

Related Links:

NBC's Jeff Zucker:  Jay Leno Show Failed and "I Take Responsibility," by Gillian Reagan

"Five Lessons to Learn from NBC's Late-Night Leno/Conan Folly," by Eric Deggans

"Everyone's Pissed at Jay Leno," by Holly Won't

Laurie at Punk Rock HR thinks the Leno/O'Brien mess is bad personnel management.



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