Years ago when Johnny Carson was retiring, NBC made a big mistake in choosing Jay Leno over Dave Letterman. Much has been written about this decision and they even had a TV movie about the fiasco. Leno isn’t nearly the natural that Letterman is. He comes out hand-slapping the audience every night at the start of the show to prove he’s not merely a robot dispensing topical cracks masquerading as humor. His interview segments with guests are as wooden as those seen on the Today show – staged ahead of time with a script. So NBC ended up losing Letterman and CBS had the smarts to pick up Letterman. A clear loss for NBC and a clear win for CBS.
Next, NBC continued the mistakes by hiring Conan O’Brien. While many of you may disagree and say that you like O’Brien, I just don’t think he’s that good. He’d fit better doing late night on the WB. Fundamentally, O’Brien is a funny guy and his writing for his own show as well as that of SNL and The Simpsons shows it. But he’s not great at the host job.
Meanwhile, CBS continued the smart picks by picking up Craig Ferguson for the show after Letterman. Not only is Ferguson a good interviewer, but he’s naturally funny on camera. And his monologue is frequently the funniest on late night.
(For the sake of completeness, I think Jimmy Kimmel is a good pick for host too and it’s too bad that Kimmel isn’t on at 11:30. Not that Nightline isn’t a good show, but it is tough for Kimmel to get his kind of audience at 12:00 following Nightline.)
Five years ago, NBC made another mistake. They decided to announce the replacement of Leno with O’Brien. Now I have no idea why they needed to make this decision so long ago nor do I know why they even thought that Leno had to go. I think he’s a poor host, but he still gets good ratings and NBC couldn’t claim in 2003 that they knew Leno’s 2008 ratings would be poor enough to warrant taking action then. (And if they did try that, they would have been wrong.) And choosing O’Brien to move to the 11:30pm post was a poor choice anyway since part of what makes him acceptable as a host is that people are feeling a little looser at the 12:30am slot. If 5 years ago, NBC was presented with the possibility that O’Brien would leave without a contract for the 11:30 job, NBC should have let O’Brien go.
So five years later it’s time to take action. Early next year is when O’Brien will take over for Leno and Leno is apparently in discussions with other networks – duh! How did NBC not see this coming? O’Brien is already contractually set to go to 11:30 so NBC had no choice but to… give Leno a new show at 10:00pm five nights a week!!?? That’s madness. It’s like after you’ve already robbed the convenience store at knife point you decide to steal a cop car for your getaway – you know you are only digging your hole deeper. This means that they will now have 3 mediocre talents all running hour-long shows 5 nights a week (perhaps Jimmy Fallon will prove to be a decent talent at the 12:30am slot but for now, I’m assuming not) for a total of 15 hours. And the remaining entertainment portion of NBC’s schedule will be reduced to 16 hours (2 hours 5 nights a week plus 3 hours Saturday and 3 hours Sunday). All of the 10:00pm weeknight dramas will move or disappear. I can’t say that I was watching any (or can even name any besides “ER”) but less dramas on network TV is a loss for the country.
How many hours a week is NBC putting into so-called scripted television – dramas and comedies? A quick check of this week’s schedule yields a total of 9 hours (“Life” 1, “Law & Order” 1, “My Name is Earl” .5, “Kath & Kim” .5, “The Office” .5, “30 Rock” .5, “ER” 1, “Lipstick Jungle” 1, “Chuck” 1, “Heroes” 1, “My Own Worst Enemy” 1) and removing those that start at 10:00pm would leave a total of 6 hours. So 6 hours of what most people consider to be traditional TV per week plus another 10 or so hours of reality and news magazines, 20 hours of nighttime talk (including Carson Daly), and 20 hours of Today show all per week. To me, that’s the schedule of what should be NBC’s secondary news/chat show network (perhaps MSNBC), not the primary network.
Or maybe that’s what’s happening here. This is the beginning of the end of traditional TV entertainment. Like MTV that started showing music and was loved for it now accidentally shows a music video or two and it is an event, or AM radio that used be sort of variety radio, NBC will end up being the first network to be primarily a news/talk network with only 6 hours of scripted entertainment remaining.
Other questions are inevitable: Will O’Brien be pissed off that he thought he was getting the top talk show gig but found out he actually will still be second? Or will the 11:30 slot still be top slot and the 10:00pm slot will be second? When booking guests, which slot will get the best crop of guests – the ones most likely to announce they are running for elected office (Ahnold) or the ones on their apology tour (Hugh Grant)? Or will the guest pool be too thin to adequately fill that much talk show? Will people want to watch local news after an hour of Leno? A night-time talk show seems like the right program to follow a newscast but not to precede it. Will viewers used to shutting off the TV half way through the new Leno show now shut their TVs off at 10:30pm? Will producers of new scripted dramas and comedies even bother pitching to NBC if they appear to be getting out of the game and have fewer slots for them? Does NBC secretly wish they could have all their affiliates switch to a 10:00pm newscast and air Leno at 10:30pm? Will affiliates be allowed to make that swap on their own? Time may tell.