Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Late night drama

A friend emailed me:
Hey there--

You must be following this late night show confusion. I don't understand: Why did Leno agree five years ago to retire? Why isn't he retiring now? Didn't it look really bad when he reversed course, and instead of retiring from television just changed time slots; doesn't it look even worse for him to agree to take his old time slot back at Conan's expense? I don't see why there isn't pressure on him to retire and let the Tonight Show pass on to the next generation. What do you think?

I reply:
Five years ago Conan was getting antsy, having proven himself on the 12:35 shift hosting what had been Letterman's show. He'd remade it in his own image, gradually triumphing over his many naysayers and earning a consistent #1 in that time slot and an enviable cult status among college kids and twentysomethings.

NBC knew he was a rising star and didn't want to let him go. At the same time, Leno was consistently beating Letterman and generating big profits for the network. Conan wanted to move up an hour but Leno was in his prime and did not want to give up his show. Conan forced NBC's hand, telling them, I've paid my dues at this hour for long enough, move me up or I'm out of here.

They all reached a compromise in 2004 whereby Conan got a big pay bump to like $8MM+ a year for the next five years and Leno re-upped for five years at big money with the understanding that Leno would cede the Tonight Show to Conan in 2009. The thinking was that Leno would be 59 at that point and ready to hang it up, or would at least have five years to make peace with his own eventual departure.

At first the finish line was so far off that everything returned to the status quo. The problem started a few years ago when Leno began grumbling, quietly at first but increasingly vocally, that he wasn't ready to leave (though he had agreed to). Meanwhile he was killing Letterman in the ratings and the show was making the network a ton of money, so they had mixed feelings about enforcing the agreement. And they did not want to lose him to a competing network; Fox or ABC would instantly establish a late-night comedy bulwark by nabbing Leno.

But they had to give Conan the Tonight Show. His agent Gavin Polone had negotiated that either Conan would get the Tonight Show in 2009 at its usual time slot or receive a huge severance payment of like $40 million.

Desperate NBC chairman Jeff Zucker started offering Leno different deals to stay at NBC. How would you like to be our signature star like Bob Hope used to be, with seasonal specials, go on at Christmas or Thanksgiving, after the Super Bowl, etc? Leno said no, I need to be on every weeknight. How about a nightly show on our USA cable network at whatever time you want? Leno said no, it has to be NBC. How about we give you the first half hour of prime time every night to tell jokes? Leno said no. (In hindsight that might have been a good move.) Finally Zucker played the last card he had left, offering Leno the final hour of prime time, and he took it. Thus did Leno stay at NBC.

This was a bizarre and problematic turn for Conan, but like the good guy he is (not just my opinion after talking to him on several occasions, but the consensus of many people who know him a lot better than I do, including the staff members who would take a bullet for him), he agreed to try to make the best of it. At the time he was quoted as saying something like, "I thought it was pretty weird at first, but I was like, I'm still getting the Tonight Show, the one Johnny Carson used to host? And I am getting that show, so I'm okay with it."

Unfortunately for Conan, he was handed pretty much the exact opposite of Carson's situation. Carson pioneered the late-night time slot as seriously profitable due in large part to his enjoying a near monopoly for thirty years with minimal intrusion from other networks. The field is crowded and competitive these days with Letterman, Stewart/Colbert, Kimmel, et al., and a more fragmented network audience generally.

And where Carson enjoyed solid NBC support for the bulk of his tenure (until he was rudely asked to pack it up late in his career), Conan was dealt the most damaging blows by his own network. NBC's refusal to kiss Leno goodbye resulted in their essentially airing a Leno Tonight Show in prime time, leaving Conan with a poor sister that might as well have been called The Tonight Show Part II. To hedge the risk of the unusual experiment, NBC promoted the hell out of Leno's show, giving it all the hype and fanfare that a new Tonight Show rollout like Conan's might reasonably have expected. The paradigm-shifting move also got all the media coverage, again making Leno the focus and leaving Conan little talked about.

Where the Tonight Show had kicked off NBC's talk show lineup for fifty years, the network thus relegated Conan's incarnation to an afterthought. It was like Conan got named the quarterback, except that before his first game, the old starter decided to come back after graduation to play another senior year, and the school looked the other way and let him do it.

Conan even had to compete with Leno for A-list guests. After many years in which CBS and NBC both had a late-night show on each coast, Conan had to contend with Leno, on his same network and right down the street, wooing the big stars by whispering that he'd put them in front of a bigger audience in prime time than Conan could in late night.

Although he gets points for his team attitude, trying to make the best of an awkward situation, Conan was right to worry that he would be upstaged and overshadowed by Leno. He was. Cannibalized is more like it.

The rest is history, or at least a sad chapter of it, as Conan's worst fears were realized. No one watched Leno's new show -- on his watch the 10pm time slot set records for DVR use as people instead watched previously recorded shows -- and NBC affiliates' late news tanked.
Accustomed to making a lot of money in that time slot, local stations were disgruntled. In fact, the late shows' shift from 30 to 35 minutes past the hour was a sop to the affiliates, giving them an extra five minutes every night to sell commercials during their newscasts. This extra money helped keep them in line, uniformly airing the networks' original late night programming rather than syndicated reruns of hit shows like Seinfeld and Cheers during which they'd keep more commercial revenue.

In recent months a growing number of local stations has been quietly threatening to stop showing Leno's show. NBC could not afford this type of public mutiny, which led to the powwow last week among network brass, Conan and Leno that resulted in the current standoff.

With the weak lead-in, a nation of viewers accustomed to Leno and with little taste for edgy comedy à la Conan (though he watered it down) declined to make the switch. Letterman has been beating Conan soundly, finally getting to be called #1 even though he's not beating the one guy he's always wanted to. Even the Today show has suffered as fewer viewers are starting the day with their TVs tuned to NBC from the night before.

Conan did nothing wrong in all this and got screwed out of a good shot at hosting the Tonight Show. When Leno had hits like ER protecting him in the batting order, he got his RBIs (though to his credit he would still beat Letterman despite the CSI juggernauts on CBS). Leno's inability to deliver an audience at the earlier hour has in turn made Conan look terrible. He's had to fight uphill with an unfamiliar show in a 2009 where no one was tuned to NBC by the time he went on.

Meanwhile, on a creative level, Conan played ball and did what the network wanted, adjusting his show for the broader audience (in both senses) an hour earlier. He and his writers got out the emery board and took the sharp edges off their comedy, leaving many of their more outrageous and interesting bits behind. Those that remain are playing directly to the middle of the road.

This dilution hasn't worked for anyone, taking something away from Conan's core viewers and earning only a shrug from middle America. I've heard a number of longtime fans grumble that they wish Conan had stayed where he was since the best parts of his old show -- often the more experimental comedy segment that would air halfway through, to whoever was still awake at 1 a.m. Eastern time -- are a distant memory. Because he now has to play to Sally Housecoat instead of Fraternity Row, Conan has had to walk away from the quirky gems that earned him his following in the first place. He remains a witty and patient interviewer but with his brilliant writers' hands tied the show can't reach its true potential. (It's not that his current show isn't a good show; it is. It's just not what it could be.)

Give Leno 20% of the blame for his petulant refusal to walk away as he agreed to and NBC 80% for not standing up for Conan as they agreed to, particularly after he's been a good soldier for all these years. He barely survived the ax in his early days, signing a series of 13-week contract extensions in his first two years on the air, and the network's grudging faith was eventually repaid in spades after his show became a hit. Although he was underpaid for years while his Late Night showered millions on NBC, he never complained or phoned it in, generating a steady stream of lively and adventurous material with his top-notch writing staff and panning for gold in even the most mundane interviews. Plus after eleven years proving himself, he agreed to wait five more years to get the job he wanted. The guy deserves better.

NBC has now managed to screw up its late-night franchise even worse than it did in 1993, and it's unclear what's next. Conan could say the hell with this and walk. But where? What kind of money or security will he get as an unproven commodity at that hour? Although he hasn't been treated too well, would he want to give up his longtime and only recently realized dream of hosting the Tonight Show?

He does however have a huge young following and though Leno is a safe short-term play, Conan is the obvious long-term guy to host that show. But NBC won't honor the spirit of their 2004 deal or think long-term enough to give him the job. Would they actually shoot themselves in the foot (even worse than they have already) and fire him? The network is in thrall to Leno and letting him call the shots, apparently unable to envision Conan carrying their late night lineup with a strong prime time lineup behind him. Brandon Tartikoff, where are you?
So it's the Late Shift all over again. The guy who toiled for a decade as the heir apparent to the Tonight Show gets passed over in favor of Jay Leno, the only guy among the three who seems to lack a personality, a creative vision for the show, or even the ability to articulate why he wants the job.
Conan must be thinking, I moved my wife and kids and 200 staffers across the country for this?

p.s. And yes, Leno does look terrible. From everything I've read and observed, the guy is a weasel. I'm not a fan of his comedy, the recent Leno being a far cry from the fascinating wiseacre who guest-hosted for Carson in the 1980s; let's not even get into his unwatchable interviews or his endless pandering. It seems like he has little personal integrity either. (Just listen to Howard Stern complain about Leno ripping off his material and poaching his staffers.) Leno entered the 2004 agreement with his eyes open and if he would just man up and abide by it, this whole mess would be over.
As for pressure on Leno, there is widespread feeling in the public and certainly in the comedy community that he should move over, but he has the support that matters most: that of NBC brass. Short of a parade of huge stars lining up to throw their support behind Conan (read: threatening to boycott the Tonight Show if he's not hosting it), it's hard to imagine what will persuade those in power to abandon their current disastrous course.
As bad as Leno looks, no less weaselly are the faceless NBC executives who are hanging Conan out to dry and will surely pin the blame on him for their mistakes if they show him the door. I'd love to see NBC grow a spine and tell Leno, sorry, we all made a deal and we're sticking to it. Even if Leno bolted to take on Conan and Letterman directly, there's presumably enough advertising money to spread around that all three shows could survive. Conan is 20 years younger than those guys and even if NBC takes a punch in the face and comes in third for the first few years, it's easy to imagine a year 2020 where he's the undisputed king of network late night. As they rebuild their prime time lineup and America gets used to Conan, he'll do fine. The younger viewers he brings would compensate NBC in the meantime.
p.p.s. And Leno's creepy, clumsy "joking" advances at young starlets in interviews make my skin crawl. Conan finds a funny way to hit on the ladies where it's obvious he's kidding. Leno makes me want to blow a rape whistle and call the police.

Incidentally, as I have mentioned occasionally on this site, I'm friendly with a few writers at the Conan show. None of the above comes from them, it's a combination of my own opinions and reportage I've read over the years from the likes of Bill Carter at the New York Times and Aaron Barnhart at the Kansas City Star and Any factual errors in the above are my own mistaken recollections.


Jackpot said...

Excellent piece, Ben. I didn't know the whole backstory.

Martin said...

Excellent, excellent post, Ben. I've forwarded it to a few friends with whom I've been discussing this.

A couple of points, though. The context for every move of the last two years, as well as the overriding explanation for every move of the last two years, is the collapse of the advertising/affiliate model. Cable TV and the rise of the Internet as a video delivery system -- for free or very cheap -- has destroyed the ability of NBC to get advertising revenue in much the same way it destroyed the ability of the Chicago Tribune to do the same thing. The pie is getting smaller and smaller, and everyone is scrambling for crumbs. The word "crisis" is not at all an overstatement here. You mentioned 2020 -- you are right that Conan's value inheres in his likely value in a year that late, but it's also perfectly rational for all of the players to behave as if NBC might not even exist in 2013 -- it really might not exist, in its current form. This explains NBC's apparent preference for Leno over Conan, which explains why Conan's bargaining power seems so weak. If the doctor tells you you have a 30% of being dead in six months, you don't buy an IRA account. And Conan's value is more like an IRA account than Jay's value.

Another thing: I think Dave and Conan both made terrible tactical errors by valorizing the specific property known as "The Tonight Show" -- Dave in 1993, and Conan now. (I don't know if you saw Conan's open letter of today or yesterday, but it's plain that he and Dave are similar in this regard.) Dave and Conan are both conventionally brighter than Jay is, they're more like college graduate types -- but they both miss that the value they provide inheres IN THEMSELVES. The sentimentality inherent in fervently wishing to be the guy who attempts to recreate Johnny's context with 10% of the resources -- Jay may also have lusted over The Tonight Show, but his behavior was more cutthroat, and also more consistent with the viewpoint that the value inhered in Jay, not the show. Both Conan and Dave could have used more of that mindset. I hope that all of this latest wrangling really represented Conan's attempt to get free of NBC with the maximum amount of public sympathy (which is exactly what happened), but I rather doubt it.

Let's hope there's an economic model that lets Conan bring his wit to millions in 2020.