Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Last week's announcement that NBC was giving Jay Leno a five-nights-a-week primetime talk show starting in the fall of 2009 marked the end of an era - the era, frankly, of NBC. With one bold step, the Peacock Network basically ceased to be a network - that is, a full-service free broadcast service. After several years of disease that came in the form of such fare as Knight Rider, American Gladiators and about a dozen attempts to replicate the cultural earthquake that was Friends, the patient finally succumbed to indifference, incompetence and malaise. The outlet that brought us Johnny Carson, Jerry Seinfeld and Peter Falk has now been reduced to a version of the CW, albeit with a bit more gloss and a few less black people.
And all of this is not to unilaterally say that the Leno move will be an abject failure. Indeed, in some ways it's brilliant. It takes care of five hours of programming with a stroke of pen by inserting a known commodity into a low-cost situation, an important factor at a time of struggling economy. It take heavy burden off the shoulders of NBC programming chief Ben Silverman, who so far has shown extraordinary incompetence when it comes to putting together a schedule that the masses want to give a crap about. In theory, it allows Silverman and whomever is left working under him extra resources with which to develop new, interesting and/or innovative shows that could generate a pulse with the critics and audiences alike. And, maybe most importantly, it keeps Leno, who was to be a free agent when Conan O'Brien took over as host of the Tonight show next May, in the warm bosom of the NBC family, rather than seeing him go to ABC or Fox or syndication as a potential dangerous adversary to the red-haired boy from Boston.
So all should be well, right? Yeah, if it works - and, crucially, if it works in the long term. But NBC should be wary of the cautionary tale of ABC and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. That network rode Regis Philbin's white-hot hit to the top of the ratings, at one point airing the game show four nights a week. But when oversaturation led to the inevitable ratings collapse, ABC was left literally with its pants down as Millionaire fizzled out. Now, Leno's new gig will undoubtedly be a success at first, and maybe for a while. But what happens if the act gets old, or if the ratings aren't there? (After all, the bar for viewership is much higher in primetime than at the midnight hour.) Would NBC have the non-Law & Order goods to plug in the holes?
And whither this idea that a primetime Leno strip would free up money for the development of higher-quality scripted programs? Who is to say that NBC just doesn't use the new profits for other matters? And isn't NBC saying to producers that their operation is not open for business if it it willing to dedicate five hours of prime real estate to jokes and celebrity banter? If I were Aaron Sorkin or J.J. Abrams or Jerry Bruckheimer, I would be taking my toys elsewhere. And what about Conan O'Brien? On the cusp of one of the biggest jewels for a comedian, he's suddenly second-fiddle again, overshadowed by the Jay Leno machine. Trouper that he is, O'Brien is putting a smiling face on the situation - because, what choice does he have?
The thing about the Leno move is that it's not even original. Way back when, when the Leno-Dave Letterman feud over who got the Tonight show was raging, Warren Littlefield (whose expertise as a programmer becomes more and more appreciated as we go deeper in the Silverman regime) and his NBC cohorts actively thought about offering Letterman a primetime weeknight show as a way of appeasing their disgruntled comedy star. So maybe between bong hits, Silverman was leafing through Bill Carter's tome of that saga, The Late Shift, and noticed that little nugget o'information and had an epiphany. It's exciting to know that our TV programming executives actually read.