Over the decade of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the host lost a mere 10% of the audience he inherited from legendary host Johnny Carson. That performance stands as one of the most impressive and outstanding achievements in a television industry that was defined by network TV ratings erosion during that period. In just a matter of weeks, Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show ratings dropped precipitously by half and they showed no indication of rebounding.
While Leno's ratings at 10 PM were not stellar, his show was far closer to meeting the expectations that NBC's programmers and researchers had anticipated in advance of their shift away from 10 PM dramas. Although I had maintained an open mind on the shift and believed it was a reasonable risk for NBC management, the reaction of NBC affiliates and the impact on the already troubled local Late News time period made it untenable for NBC to continue the trial. The idea for the move had originated with then-NBC programming chief Ben Silverman, who had quickly departed from the company and been replaced by NBC veteran Jeff Gaspin. Acting quickly to correct Silverman's blunder, Gaspin and NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker devised a strategy that they hoped would keep both Leno and O'Brien in the NBC family. Being too nice was their mistake.
They should have simply moved Leno back to where he belonged -- at 11:35 -- for a full hour, and offered to return O'Brien to his original time slot or allowed him to leave. It never made sense for Leno to move to a 30-minute warm up act for O'Brien's Tonight Show. I expect that move would have proved to be an even greater ratings disaster. While Leno was being a good corporate citizen by empowering NBC management to make programming decisions affecting him, O'Brien played the role of a whining three-year old who cries even harder when he's punished for bad behavior. The overriding truth is that The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien was a ratings disaster threatening one of television's most valuable franchises.
What O'Brien got right is that The Tonight Show is too important to be relegated to 12:05 AM. The best move all along is the one that has emerged from the reality show swamp that late night television sunk into during the past few weeks. Jay Leno is back where he belongs as host of The Tonight Show. The Tonight Show will be a full hour at 11:35 (10:35 Central). Local NBC affiliates will no longer have the network alone to blame for poor ratings. Conan O'Brien can skulk off with his $40 million and his reputation as a cult comic intact.
When NBC and late night television settles back into its traditional patterns, NBC will be the beneficiary. There will be more focus and attention on Leno, who I hope will use the opportunity to refresh his format and relevance. Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Last Call with Carson Daly will have a better lead-in and better time periods than a year ago, and will find new and larger audiences. And NBC programming head Jeff Gaspin will have an unprecedented opportunity to test new formats and series at 10 PM. Most importantly, all of us have been reminded again how important a role network television plays in our lives.
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