Thursday, January 14, 2010

Jay walking

Here's a little remembered detail the last time that NBC had a nervous breakdown over its late night programming.

Last time you recall (as was said on Rocky and Bullwinkle), Johnny Carson was getting ready to retire and the jockeying was on to replace him. The obvious contenders were Jay Leno, who had been something of the main "guest hosts" (say, isn't that a contradiction in terms?) in the later years of Carson's reign, and David Letterman, the "edgy" host of Late Night that followed Carson.

Leno was considered the safer choice, but Letterman had his backers as well. As it turned out, Leno was offered the job of replacing Carson. But when Letterman started talking to other networks, he was offered a different deal by NBC: the chance to host his own show at 10 p.m., Monday through Friday.

At the time, being the savvy media critic that I was, I thought it was a brilliant move. I liked Letterman more than Leno, and having him on at 10 would make him more accessible to more people. He essentially could be everyone's second choice for programming at 10 p.m., and it seemed to me as if he could carve out a pretty good niche for himself that way.

However, CBS came calling, Carson even told Letterman he should take a walk, and that's what he did. Letterman is still at CBS more than 16 years later.

Fast forward more than a decade, when the clumsy process of succession came up again. Leno was guaranteed in 2004 the Tonight Show job for five more years, when he'd be replaced by Conan O'Brien. But when 2009 arrived, that move didn't seem like such a good idea. The TV landscape continued to change, but NBC saw no easy way to keep its original lineup. So Leno moved to 10 p.m. weeknights. If nothing else, it would make NBC more money that trying to produce five hour-long dramas for that time slot.

I thought the Leno move still had a chance, but the affiliates started complaining about the lower ratings almost instantly. Their 11 p.m. newscast had lost some strong lead-in programming. So, NBC's current plan is to move Leno to 11:35, O'Brien to 12:05 ... but O'Brien doesn't like that idea and is exploring his options. Now Leno may return with a little egg on his face, and O'Brien may be gone. The 10 o'clock idea has been linked with "The New Coke" as bad marketing ideas.

There's only one clear victor in this matter. Letterman has been winning the ratings battle ever since this started last year, and he may be difficult to displace now. I'm still not sure if the Letterman idea in 1993 would have worked, but he probably wouldn't still be on the air today.

And for those of you old enough to remember, wouldn't you love to hear what Carson would say about all of this?

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