Since the whole world seems to have an opinion on the NBC Late Night mess, I might as well add my three cents worth. I spent most of my career at NBC and it pains me to see what this once proud network has become.
First of all, this is not Jay Leno's fault. For some reason, Leno has become a human piñata for everybody with an ax to grind about anything. During the Writer's Guild strike in '08, Leno was singled out for strike breaking because he continued to perform on "The Tonight Show." Never mind that most of the striking writers with half a brain were writing spec movies and pilots at home after a few hours of picketing. The wrath and fury of the entire membership was focused on Jay. (Last year a Writers Guild investigation cleared Leno of all wrongdoing during the strike.) However, it left Leno stained forever and now he's being blamed for the latest network fiasco.
The decision by NBC's Jeff Zucker to keep both Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno in the fold by giving Conan the "Tonight Show" and Leno the 10PM slot was a disaster on many levels. First of all, by putting Jay on before the "Tonight Show," NBC was undermining O'Brien's chances of survival. Since both shows would emanate from Los Angeles, they would be in competition with each other for guests, plus who wants to watch another monologue covering the same subjects? There was no way that Leno could deliver the same ratings the scripted shows were delivering for the network. Thus it was impossible for O'Brien to get a fair shot when he was given a terrible lead-in. Plus, the pre-premier buzz for Leno brought back the same echoes from the writer's strike. Leno was a hog. Leno was responsible for taking jobs away from other productions. It was all about Leno's massive ego.
Nonsense. Leno made no secret that he didn't want to leave the 11:30 spot. He was being pushed out for the same lame reason the morons at the network use all the time: Poor demographics. Yes, he was trailing Letterman and Kimmel in younger viewers, but he was still ahead in the ratings. Conan O'Brien was doing just fine following the "Tonight Show." His humor was perfect for the 12:30 slot.
NBC got greedy and vindictive. To offset their advertising losses in prime time (The network hasn't developed a bona fide mega hit in years) they decided to get out of the scripted series business at 10 PM. This meant that the development department didn't have to strain their little minds trying to come up with innovative shows the public might actually watch. This also would cut the monetary losses. Unfortunately this meant fewer jobs for actors, directors, grips, cameramen, production assistants and most importantly writers. Although there is no concrete proof, most people out here in the business saw this as NBC's payback for the writer's strike. Much to the network's relief, all fingers pointed at the "greedy" Leno instead of at them.
Meanwhile, Conan O'Brien and his staff were ending their terrific run in New York and moving west. They knew they were being hamstrung by the network, but were powerless to do anything about it. The 12:30 spot has always been much more advantageous for hard edged comedy than 11:30. All the adults are asleep and you can do what you want. It's anti-establishment humor and O'Brien did it well. When you move to 11:30, you have to adjust your comic sensibilities, make the show more mainstream. David Letterman has never equaled the nightly genius that was his NBC "Late Night" run. Letterman and his staff were reinventing the comedy wheel every night. Letterman's NBC show was, and always will be the gold standard for late night comedy. When he left (Or rather was pushed out) to go to CBS at 11:30, it just wasn't the same. The college prankster was forced to become an adult. However O'Brien took Letterman's blueprint and built on it. Everything at NBC was hunky dory... until Zucker decided to emulate NBC programming icon Brandon Tartikoff without any of Brandon's savvy and smarts. (Most of my work at NBC was under Tartikoff's regime. He knew television and knew how to handle talent. When he left NBC, he left it on top. I have no doubt that Brandon would have given Letterman the "Tonight Show" slot instead of Leno.)
Now the network is a mess. They tried to program on the cheap and it's blown up in their faces. O'Brien and his staff are understandably outraged that they were played by the incompetents at NBC who just wanted to save a buck. They were never given a real chance to show what they could do. Plus O'Brien and the entire staff relocated 3,000 miles only to be canceled in less than a year. Leno's brand has sunk even lower. What worked on the "Tonight Show," didn't at 10PM. Chances are very good that if or when he returns to the 11:30 slot, he'll never catch up to Letterman. As for O'Brien following a half hour version of Leno? Forget it. It's a no-win situation for Conan, which is why he was absolutely right to turn down the lame offer. (Now the ball is in Leno's court. He too, should turn the network's half hour idea down. If he doesn't, he'll be seen as forcing O'Brien out and he'll never recover from that.) (Added note: Zucker, Dick Ebersol and the rest of NBC's campaign to destroy O'Brien is going to backfire. The public will associate the network's ugly remarks as Leno's and his ratings will suffer for it. Zucker and NBC are killing the "Tonight Show" brand and destroying Leno in the process.)
Conan O'Brien is getting royally screwed. Jay Leno is getting creamed in the press. NBC is hemorrhaging money. Their entire prime time schedule is tanking. Affiliates are screaming bloody murder. But Jeff Zucker still has his job. And guess what his solution is to fill the five hours that Leno will vacate after the Olympics? "Dateline"
And people still ask if I miss being in the television business.