No one watches Jay Leno. And by no one, I mean women over 50 and other people who are going to be going to bed long before 11:30 in the very near future.
I am not a huge patron of late night talk shows as a point of fact, but I do understand my industry, and more than that, I understand scheduling and programming entertainment. It's one of the things that comes the most naturally to me, and I've had the opportunity in several jobs I've held (especially the 2008 music manager gig) to test my mettle. I say this, because at the very least, it should lend some added weight to what I'm about to point out here - assuming the logic isn't enough by itself.
NBC made a monumental mistake (old news, right?) by putting Jay Leno at 10pm earlier this year, and it's got nothing what-so-ever to do with the quality of show being produced by Conan O'Brien and his team. And it's got nothing to do with the affiliates losing 25+% of their 10pm ratings (though that has proven to be a disastrous side-effect).
The mistake was actually, in my opinion, an extremely simple one which I'm frankly shocked that any upper level entertainment executive could make. Or perhaps... I would be shocked, had I not had the displeasure of encountering and being effected by these types of useless executives in the past. At any rate, people talk about ratings, and they talk about all these other factors, and I haven't really heard people saying what I'm about to say, so here it is.
The mistake is this:
NBC put a long-running headlining act as the opener for a younger, less mainstream brand.
Look at this whole situation from a non-TV perspective for one moment... Look at it in terms of scheduling a music concert. The typical format puts the biggest name at the end of the show, and one or more smaller, lesser-known bands just ahead of that big name under the assumption that people will stay until the end to hear the headliner, and in the process will be warmed up by the opening acts. It's really win-win all the way around because concert-goers get more music for their buck, the headlining acts don't have to walk out to a cold audience, and the opening acts get some exposure that they wouldn't have otherwise have had. Comedians, plays, all-weekend music festivals, and even movie theatres all use this format in one way or another.
Television does too, although the rules are changed a little bit (i.e. it's a 24 hour cycle, so there's a cut off point where people are eventually going to shut off the TV no matter what). Notice what any network does with their primetime line up. Since we're talking about NBC, look at NBC's Thursday night primetime schedule - the top rated show, "30 Rock", is at the end of the 2 hour block. Newcomers "Community" and "Parks & Rec", and the slightly less popular "The Office" precede Tina Fey's hilarious show. Since most people actually don't change channels all that much during primetime hours, what this does is basically ensure that anyone who wants to watch "30 Rock" will end up watching some or all of the lead-in shows as well. Same idea with music.
Now... Back to the concert analogy:
Jay Leno represents a really huge, mainstream act like, lets say, Paul McCartney, or even The Beatles themselves. Conan, in this scenario represents a slightly lesser known, newer, but almost equally famous name like Justin Timberlake. Quibble with my artist choices if you want, but my point is this: These are both headlining acts in their own right, they are both famous within their respective demographics, and they are both excellent entertainers. So if you put them up against each other, the result is several specific - and very large - problems.
- The demographic isn't unified: Some people want to watch Paul McCartney, and a totally different set of people want to watch Justin Timberlake - so you have to either convince disparate sets of individuals to come to the same show, or accept that some will come for the first half and some only for the second half.
- Major performers are forced to share the spotlight: This denigrates both performers, because in stead of supporting each other, they wind up competing against each other on the same bill.
- The "true" headliner (i.e., the performer who is onstage last and in the most prominent place during the show - in this analogy, this means Justin Timberlake/Conan) is undercut by his opening act, thus hurting audience expectations for the headliner's performance
And look - exactly this has happened with Leno & Conan. Now, when Conan & Leno both had top rated shows, now neither one do. The demographics were all screwed up, because while Jay's audience is mostly older people Conan's audience is the 18-35 (male) crowd, so Leno makes no sense as a lead-in or opening act anyway. And the consequence was that Conan's show was undermined from the very beginning.
That's what I knew would happen when I heard that NBC was planning on putting Leno on at 10pm before Conan... It surprised me, and struck me as one of the dumbest and most destructive ideas possible. I commented to friends about it at the time, but what can you do? I'm not an employee of NBC and I don't really care in either case. No one's asking me to fix anything, so mostly I'm just talking to the ether.
The thing that annoys me though, is that from my perspective the mistakes made in scheduling by the upper management are really fundamental, basic no-nos of entertainment programming. You don't put a long-running, well-loved, and relatively strong show as the opener to a program that's new, developing and in its infancy. I can honestly think of no better way to kill the new show. So Leno, like Johnny Carson before him, really should have gracefully left the Tonight Show, offered his well-wishes and friendly support for Conan and then just disappeared from the public view - giving Conan and the new show as much space as possible to win over the Leno demographic and find their new artistic aims.
All around, I'm just irritated with how extremely huge a debacle this all is, and it's one of those things that frustrates the hell out of me about the entertainment industry in general. Kevin Smith probably said it best when he pointed out that people in this business seem to "fail upward". That is, they make spectacularly bad movies, TV shows and extremely poor business decisions, and yet as a result they merely get rewarded, promoted and eventually become Jeff Zucker.
Programming isn't actually that complicated, or at least... It shouldn't be.
Now, to make matters worse, after Zucker created this debacle to begin with, his handling of the current situation is terrible as well. I suspect things have gone way past the breaking point for Conan to stay where he is, and this makes me sad. For my age group, Conan has always been the top choice. Who's his competition? Craig Fergusen? Psh. Letterman's not going to be around forever, and the torch will be passed to someone else over at CBS too, and when that happens NBC could have had an established, extremely talented guy to scoop up all the remaining market share - but now that won't happen.
It's just idiotic. But at this point, I hardly care - it would surprise me immensely if in 5 years the studio system isn't collapsing on itself entirely. They are not the future, and Jeff Zucker's decisions for the entire year have been a perfect example of why.