Archive for January, 2010

Five ways to fix NBC: All Jay Leno, all the time!

January 29, 2010

Jay Leno: From MVP (Most Valuable Player) to OVP (Only Valuable Player).


NEW YORK, Jan. 29, 2010 — Not that anyone from NBC has called and asked, but in case they do, I have five helpful suggestions to get NBC on its feet again — and each of these ideas have one thing in common: Jay Leno!

1) Jay Leno at 10 p.m. and 11:35 p.m.: Hey, why not?  Aspects of the 10 p.m. plan still make sense, if NBC is still hellbent on saving money on prime-time shows.  And Leno is their guy.  Got a problem at 10?  Call Jay Leno.  Need him to come back and stop the bleeding on “Tonight”?  Just call Jay.  He’s such a workhorse, he’ll do anything to help NBC, even host two shows every night!

2) The NBC Nightly News with . . . Jay Leno! Sure, serious news guy Brian Williams can still have his oh-so important newscast every evening — but only if he agrees to move the newscast a half-hour later, so Jay can do a half-hour “newscast” of his own — a fun-filled half-hour of topical monologue jokes and hilarious pretaped comedy bits derived from the day’s biggest news stories.  Tell Brian he can still handle the serious side of the news, if only to keep him from going to another network.  Hey, everyone knows the nation gets its real news from Jay Leno anyway — this just makes it official!

3)  Jays of Our Lives: Freshen up this aging afternoon soap opera with a new character, a television personality embroiled in his own long-running soap opera — Jay Leno as himself!  In this new storyline, which could run for five years or more, Jay plays a successful comedian who manages to maintain the highest ratings in late-night as host of the show that represents the pinnacle of achievement in the comedy business.  Everything’s going well until NBC decides to replace him in five years with a brash newcomer.  Get ready for a bumpy ride!

4) The Today Show with Jay Leno: Why not launch a fifth hour of “Today” starting at 11 a.m. and let Jay do for mornings what he did for late-night — keeping NBC No. 1 (until the network decides idiotically to yank him from mornings too).  In this fun-filled hour, Jay delivers his first topical monologue of the day, riffing on the morning’s headlines and parodying the newsmaker interviews seen on the first two hours of “Today.”  If you liked Jay feuding with David Letterman in late-night, just wait ’til he and Barbara Walters go at it at 11 o’clock in the morning!

5) The Jay Leno Channel (JLC):  It’s no secret — NBC is staking its future on cable television and this new all-Jay-all-the-time cable network fits right in with NBC’s strategy of relying solely on Jay Leno to keep the company afloat.  Package scores of his old monologues into “Best of” retrospectives, play every old movie in which Jay appears — from “Major League II” to “Space Cowboys” — have Jay host everything from cooking shows (“Iron Chef” hosted by “Iron Jay”?) to late-night infomercials.  He’s the hardest-working man on NBC’s payroll and now, this new destination on cable ensures that NBC gets its money’s worth from its most loyal — and valuable — soldier.  Who else?  Jay Leno!

Contact Adam Buckman:


Conan, standard bearer for ‘youth,’ is an aging 46

January 25, 2010

Conan O’Brien: Wish him luck.


NEW YORK, Jan. 25, 2010 — Neil Young first recorded “Long May You Run” 34 years ago, in 1976.

He performed the song last Friday on Conan O’Brien’s final “Tonight Show.”

It’s a great song, but a pretty old one, the equivalent of performing a song from 1944 on “The Tonight Show” of 1976.  In 1976, Conan was 13.

In liner notes on the 1977 compilation album “Decade,” Young wrote that “Long May You Run” was a song about a car and a woman.

“‘Long May You Run’: A song written for my first car and my last lady,” Young wrote. “As Dylan says, ‘Now that the past is gone’ [from Dylan’s “Wedding Song”].”

Search for information on the Web about the car and the story behind it and you will find endless debates about which car (two hearses — one a Buick, the other a Pontiac — are in contention), whether the song’s subject is a car or a motorcycle, and what the lyrics mean, the usual inconclusive Google search.

However, it is clear the song was not written about a late-night talk-show host, though some of its lyrics were adaptable to the situation in which Young performed it on Conan O’Brien’s final “Tonight Show” last Friday (the lyrics include, “We’ve been through some things together, with trunks of memories still to come. We found things to do in stormy weather, long may you run.”).

The song is a classic example of what used to be known as “album rock,” but today, if categorized for radio play, it would be classified as “classic rock,” basically, an oldie, but not as old as the more traditional “oldie” — more likely a Top-40 pop song from the 1950s or ’60s.

Will Ferrell singing “Free Bird” on Conan’s last “Tonight” show.

The same can be said for “Free Bird,” the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic first recorded 37 years ago, in 1973.

Conan’s last “Tonight Show” closed with “Free Bird,” sung by Will Ferrell, backed up by The Tonight Show Band, and assisted on guitars by Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top (another icon of classic rock), Beck and, impressively, Conan himself.

When Young finished singing “Long May You Run” and Conan came over to greet him, Young, 64 and as much a “classic” as anyone, told Conan he came on the show to support him because of all that Conan had done over the years for the exposure of new music.

You might not have heard it; Young said it rather softly and it was partially drowned out by the audience’s enthusiastic reaction to Young’s performance (and, apparently, you can’t try and hear what Young said now, since it looks as if NBC has barred video of the performance from being posted on YouTube though it could be found there throughout the weekend).

Conan’s emphasis on emerging music acts has been his pattern over the years, particularly on “Late Night,” where music bookings tended toward artists on the way up who hadn’t quite gotten there.

And yet, when it came time to load up on the sentiment on his final “Tonight Show,” Conan revealed a personal preference for the classics, which would tend to separate him from the younger fans who showed their love for him in the waning weeks of his “Tonight Show.”

The fact is: Conan O’Brien is 46 years old. It’s a funny age for show business, especially for the way show business, or the television version of show business, is now constituted.

At 46, he’s a little old to be considered “young.” Though he’s not yet 50, he is too old to comb his hair into a point at the center of his scalp, or wear a backward cap, or go self-consciously unshaven, or wear intentionally faded jeans with an untucked shirt.

This is the outfit worn by “young” TV personalities and movie stars these days — on MTV, on the talk shows when they appear as guests, or in commercials for computers, cellphones, fast-food chains and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Moreover, at age 46, how much longer can Conan get away with the kind of sophomoric comedy that’s better suited for younger personalities?

At some point, Conan’s going to have to reinvent himself as a more mature performer capable of evolving a persona that will be seen as hip enough to continue drawing younger fans, while, at the same time, retaining his many other fans who will inevitably age along with him.

David Letterman, 63, enjoys a reputation for accomplishing this feat — the aging crank who nevertheless possesses a subversiveness that is supposedly still attractive to younger viewers.  However, reputations are often inaccurate.

The truth was: Jay Leno, now 59, had better younger demographics than Letterman when Leno hosted “The Tonight Show.”

And Leno’s younger demos weren’t that much worse than Conan’s.

I can remember seeing Leno perform in Atlantic City a few years back, and most of his audience was composed of extremely worshipful college kids, among whom he apparently has a huge following, whether erudite critics in New York and L.A. care to accept it or not.

Ultimately, a great scenario for Conan — given the caveat that nothing at all is certain in show business in general or late-night television in particular — is that, in a few years, he may be in a position to take over for Letterman.

The odd thing is, he might then be competing with an aging Leno, and he, Conan, just might beat him.

Contact Adam Buckman:

Fired, but still on? You’ve got to be kidding me!

January 22, 2010

Enough already: NBC should have muzzled Conan, but instead, they’ve allowed him to hammer them night after night.


NEW YORK, Jan. 22, 2010 — Where, oh, where are the broadcasting executives of yesteryear, the ones who would never tolerate wayward air talent who would use their airwaves to brutally lambast their own stations or networks?

If they had the opportunity to watch Conan O’Brien blasting NBC left and right these last two weeks on “The Tonight Show,” those execs — the ones from an era long ago, who weren’t afraid to exercise their power, and who regarded air talent as children in need of adult supervision (and discipline) — wouldn’t recognize their business today.

Sure, Conan’s nightly battle of wits with NBC has fueled a sharp (and much-needed) uptick in the ratings for “Tonight” these last two weeks or so.  But at what cost?  The accumulation of hard-edged humor, emanating from their own stages and skewering NBC management night after night, has only succeeded in planting an image in the public brain of a giant communications company in chaos, whose managers are so ineffective that a guy they fired is allowed to continue appearing on their air, spending their money and impugning their reputations.

Hey, it’s not that I have sympathy for TV executives.  Indeed, I’m having as much fun as everyone else watching them get splattered with mud every night.  It’s just that I keep returning to the same thought: What is wrong with this picture?

I can still vividly recall the time nearly 20 years ago when one of CBS’s highest-ranking execs, a division president,  schooled me in the ways of managing broadcast talent over lunch in his private dining room at CBS headquarters.  I had asked him what he thought of Howard Stern, who was then in the first years of his growing notoriety as the nation’s foremost practitioner of what would come to be labeled “shock radio.”

“Children,” this executive said dismissively, frowning between bites of his lunch.  “Air talent – they’re all children.  And that’s how you have to treat them.  Like children.”

And I can remember when fired air personalities were really fired.  Once upon a time, tradition held that, once they were fired, air talent was barred from the facilities, lest they engage in malicious mischief detrimental to the company.  This custom was most notable in the radio business, owing to a handful of occasions when fired disc jockeys returned to work, locked themselves in their studios and would then play a record such as “Feelings” or “You Light Up My Life” as many consecutive times as they could before private security or the police were able to dislodge them.

What is the problem with these NBC executives who are permitting Conan O’Brien to whine and complain every night on their network and on their dime?  And why are they letting him have a “farewell” broadcast?  Maybe NBC management felt that, if they abruptly shut down production on O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” last week, when he informed them he would not accept a “Tonight Show” starting at 12:05 a.m., that they and their company would take some sort of bath in the media and in the court of public opinion.

But it would have been no worse than what has happened as a result of allowing O’Brien to continue.  And at least the people running NBC would look like they possessed backbones, and were really in charge of their company, if they’d shown Conan the door instead of seeming to grant him carte blanche to wage a public war on them at their expense.

As things stand now, tonight’s farewell show will likely be the highest-rated of O’Brien’s entire, short-lived tenure on “The Tonight Show,” which possibly sets him up nicely to become established on a competing network by next fall.

Contact Adam Buckman:

How Edd Hall wound up in Dave’s anti-Jay promo

January 20, 2010

He’s Edd Hall.


NEW YORK, Jan. 20, 2010 — Jay Leno’s former announcer, Edd Hall, insists he’s not carrying any grudges against Leno and NBC.

But he doesn’t exactly feel warm toward them either, Hall indicated in his first interview today (1/20/10) since he lent his voice to a David Letterman comedy bit that skewered Leno on Letterman’s “Late Show” Tuesday night.

In the bit — a 30-second parody promo spot ballyhooing Leno’s return to “The Tonight Show” — Hall’s exuberant announcer’s voice was heard reciting copy that accused Leno of stealing comedy bits from Letterman and Howard Stern.

“Hey, late-night fans!” Hall announced, as videotape and still pictures of Leno and “Tonight Show” bandleader Kevin Eubanks were shown on screen.  “In just a few short weeks, Jay Leno will be back where he belongs as host of ‘The Tonight Show,’ and all your favorite elements of Jay’s ‘Tonight Show’ will be back!  The phony handshakes!  The guy with the guitar [Eubanks] who laughs at everything!  The bit [Leno] stole from Letterman’s ‘Late Night’ show!  [Headlines from small-town newspapers are shown.]  The bit [Leno] stole from Howard Stern!  [‘Jay Walking’ image is shown.]  The announcer he stole from Howard Stern!  [Photo of John Melendez is shown.]”

The bit ended with Hall voicing the words for which he became famous when he was Leno’s announcer for Leno’s first 12 years on “Tonight”: “And me, I’m Edd Hall!”

In a phone interview from California today, Hall pointed out that he started his career as an NBC page in New York in 1979 and several years later, wound up working for “Late Night with David Letterman” as a graphics producer and occasional announcer for comedy bits, which is how he came to be hired for “The Tonight Show” when Leno took the show over from Johnny Carson.

Hall said he maintains close ties with friends in both the Leno and Letterman camps, though his sentiments seem to lean closer to the Letterman side these days.

“I like both of these guys,” Hall said.  “But look, NBC has made plenty of, shall we say, unusual decisions regarding late-night, and frankly, replacing me with John Melendez was one of them, so . . . I don’t feel the allegiance to Jay that I once did and I never left on bad terms with Letterman.”

Hall said he received a phone call from a Letterman producer at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday (Pacific time) to ask Hall if he would record a voiceover for that night’s show in about an hour.  Hall said yes, recording the voiceover locally (the rest of Tuesday night’s promo bit was produced in New York).

“It wasn’t a conscious decision to, you know, ‘Ooh, I’m gonna get Jay tonight with this one’,” Hall said.  “I had no problem with it.  It’s comedy.”

He reported that no one from the Leno show has contacted him to ask why he agreed to play a minor, but supporting role in Letterman’s stepped-up attacks against Leno.

“I have not [heard from Leno],” Hall said, struggling to explain his relationship with Leno and his producers and writers.  “[It’s] not that I left on any bad terms, but . . . they haven’t called me to do comedy bits.”

Hall said he’s done a number of such bits for Letterman’s people over the last few years, although this one, which was pretty pointed in its criticism of Leno and aired in the midst of the current storm roiling late-night TV, has attracted more attention for Hall than any of the others.  He revealed that he even did another one recently that is also related to the ongoing drama in late-night that has not aired yet.  He doesn’t know if it ever will.

“The thing is with these monologue bits is that they record about 15 or 20 of them and two air,” Hall explained.  “I’ve done a lot of them for them before that haven’t aired.”

The one that has not yet aired got Hall prepared for the second one.  Said he, “The idea was that they wanted a ‘Tonight Show’ announcer to do it, and so I knew what this was all about.”

Contact Adam Buckman:

Comedy Darwinism: Survival of the funniest

January 19, 2010

KINGS OF COMEDY: Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno on the premiere episode of NBC’s ill-fated “Jay Leno Show” last September.



NEW YORK, Jan. 19, 2010 — The most revealing commentary on the whole NBC/Leno/Conan mess came from Jerry Seinfeld.

It revealed all you needed to know about show business.

Seinfeld, who is so wealthy and successful that he can be as honest as he feels like, laid it on the line: Conan O’Brien wasn’t good enough, so he got yanked.

“What did the network do to him?” Seinfeld shot back when a reporter at the Winter TV Press Tour in Pasadena earlier this month probed for Jerry’s opinion on whether NBC wasn’t being fair to O’Brien.

“I don’t think anyone’s preventing people from watching Conan,” said Seinfeld, demolishing the complaint from Conan’s camp that poor lead-ins from local news and Jay Leno’s 10 p.m. show hurt the ratings for Conan’s “Tonight Show.”

“Once they give you the cameras, it’s on you,” Seinfeld said.  “I can’t blame NBC for having to move things around. I hope Conan stays — I think he’s terrific. But there’s no rules in show business, there’s no refs.”

The lesson learned?  Show business is a dog-eat-dog world.  And at the top of one segment of show business — the comedy business — there is only room for a few.  And those few are more likely to respect those who came up the hard way than those, like Conan, who didn’t.

Seinfeld happens to be one of the ones who paid his dues; Jay Leno is another, which might help explain why these two are friends, or at least as close to being “friends” as two people can be in their business, assuming they never wind up competing for the same thing, which hasn’t happened to them yet.

Conan O’Brien, a Harvard-educated comedy writer from “The Simpsons” and “Saturday Night Live,” didn’t come up the hard way in the manner of Leno and Seinfeld.  They worked for years in malodorous comedy clubs — the places Seinfeld once characterized (in his 2002 documentary film, “Comedian”) as the “smelly gyms” of show business.

O’Brien didn’t rise through the ranks — he leapt over them when he was plucked from obscurity by Lorne Michaels to take over NBC’s “Late Night” when David Letterman left, one of the most unlikely and improbable lucky breaks ever recorded in the history of show business.

In the Darwinistic world of the comedy business, lucky breaks such as the one awarded Conan are an alien concept, which is why comedians such as Seinfeld and Leno will never admit a lucky break recipient such as Conan O’Brien into their exclusive circle.

In fact, if comedy has a hierarchy, Leno and Seinfeld are the business’ top dogs, measured especially by the yardstick that matters most, which is earning power.  They live in a rarefied world in which they two may be the only two residents.  Even Letterman, who paid his dues in the comedy clubs so many years ago, today eschews the live performances from which Seinfeld and Leno still make their bread and butter.

Seinfeld, swimming in residual money from the eternal rerun plays of his eponymous sitcom, and Leno, who makes so much money from live performances that he claims to bank his six-figure weekly paychecks from NBC and then never touches the money, are two peas in a unique pod.

Seinfeld was Leno’s first guest on “The Jay Leno Show” last September.  Seinfeld wore a tux, as if to say: Here at the pinnacle of show business, here is how we dress; it’s OK for the rest of you peons to go casual.  But not me.  (Leno wore his usual business suit and tie.)

Leno appeared in Seinfeld’s “Comedian” documentary and Seinfeld was Leno’s first phone call in 2004 when NBC proposed that he relinquish “The Tonight Show” to Conan O’Brien in 2009.  Seinfeld, playing the role of comedy godfather, apparently advised Leno to say yes.

“I called up my buddy, Jerry Seinfeld,” Leno said on “The Tonight Show” on Sept. 27, 2004, explaining why he agreed with NBC’s plan to replace him in five years with O’Brien — the news of which had broken earlier that day.

“I said, ‘Jerry what do you think?’ . . .  Jerry quit his show when it was the most popular, and I’m proud to say [“The Tonight Show’] show has been No. 1 and we’ll keep it No. 1 and then in ’09 I’ll say, ‘Conan, take it over, it’s yours,’ ’cause, you know, you can do these things until they carry you out on a stretcher or you can get out when you know you’re still doing good,” Leno said, the words seeming to pour out of him.

Carried out on a stretcher?  Dragged off by a team of wild horses was how Letterman put it back then when he commented on the transition plan two days later on his own show, “Late Show” on CBS.

“[Leno has] quit ‘The Tonight Show’,” Letterman said, setting up a joke.  “Jay Leno is leaving ‘The Tonight Show’ . . . He’s going to be gone in five years.  You know what this does?  It saves NBC the cost of a team of wild horses, that’s what that does!”

Now that Leno’s returning to “The Tonight Show,” NBC might have to reserve that team of wild horses after all.

Contact Adam Buckman:

New entry in the pantheon of network screwups

January 15, 2010

NBC late-night fiasco ranks high on select list of historic TV miscues


NEW YORK, Jan. 15, 2010 — More than one commentator has compared the NBC late-night fiasco to the ill-fated launch of “new” Coke in 1985 — an apt comparison since, in both instances, a huge corporation went overboard hyping a new product, only to have to backtrack later when the great new idea didn’t work.

So how does NBC’s Conan/Leno fiasco stack up against other infamous TV screwups?  When the smoke clears and TV historians are able to put this story into perspective, they just might conclude that it was, in fact, the greatest disaster in the history of  network television.

To help them out, I present this list of contenders for the network screwup crown:

I. “Dolly” (Sept. 27, 1987 – May 2, 1988): Dolly Parton’s Sunday-night (later Saturday-night) variety show represented ABC’s plan to revive the time-honored variety category.  The show never caught on but lasted an entire season anyway, mainly because ABC poured so much money into it, most notably paying Parton a non-refundable $44 million for two seasons — in advance.

II. “The Chevy Chase Show” (Sept. 7– Oct. 15, 1993): Legend has it that Dolly Parton suggested Chevy Chase to host Fox’s newest attempt to launch a late-night show after she turned it down.  Her suggestion led to the most notorious failure in late-night history (until recently).  With much fanfare, Fox bought and renovated a theater on Hollywood Boulevard for Chase, renaming it “The Chevy Chase Theater.”  Chase never looked comfortable or even the least bit happy hosting the show and he later admitted that he hated it.

III. “Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell” (Sept. 20, 1975-Jan. 17, 1976): Incredibly, if it weren’t for this failed effort on the part of ABC to capitalize on Howard Cosell’s notoriety by giving him an Ed Sullivan-esque prime-time variety show (originating from the Ed Sullivan Theater), the other “Saturday Night Live” on NBC might never have gotten its famous name (since Cosell’s show had it first) or its Not Ready for Primetime Players (Cosell’s cast, which included Bill Murray, Brian-Doyle Murray and Christopher Guest, was called the Prime Time Players).  Those of us old enough to remember this show can still recall the mountains of hype that would greet each episode, such as the show’s premiere, for which an appearance by the Bay City Rollers was billed as the second coming of the Beatles.  NBC’s “SNL” was called only “Saturday Night” until the cancellation of Cosell’s show allowed NBC to add “Live” to its show’s title.

IV: “Life with Lucy” (Sept. 20-Nov. 15, 1986): Lucille Ball was 75 years-old when she attempted this last, ill-advised comedy series on ABC.  I can still remember one episode in which the elderly Lucy was made to swing comically from a chandelier, a spectacle that instantly told me this show would soon be toast.  It was an embarrassing finale to a legendary career in television.

V: “Coupling” (Sept. 25–Oct. 23, 2003): This series would be forgotten as just another network TV failure — of which there are plenty every season.  But rarely, if ever, has a show sunk so quickly after coming to the air with as much hype as NBC attached to the launch of this remake of a sexually explicit sitcom from the United Kingdom.   The American version’s swift disappearance in fall 2003 after just four weeks (even “The Chevy Chase Show” lasted five) was breathtaking: In the end, 11 episodes of the American version were produced and only four aired.

Contact Adam Buckman:

NBC’s broken promise: We’ll give Jay a full year

January 14, 2010

Promises, promises: Jay Leno and Jeff Zucker




NEW YORK, Jan. 14, 2010 — It all seems now as if I dreamed it.

But I did not — I WAS there, in a small suite in a tiny boutique hotel no one had ever heard of before, about a half-block from Times Square, seated with a group of about a dozen journalists for an informal news conference with Jay Leno and his boss at NBC, Jeff Zucker.

Again and again, at this news conference hastily convened during network television’s upfront week last May, reporters asked Zucker: What is your network’s commitment to the new prime-time show Jay will be hosting weeknights at 10 o’clock?  The reporters asked this question repeatedly, in any number of various ways, and Zucker never wavered in his answer: The new “Jay Leno Show” would stay on the air for its first year at least, a 46-week run, without regard for ratings.  This was also the assurance the network gave Jay, repeatedly, including on that day, since Jay was there too.

In his many answers to essentially the same question, Zucker indicated that such a commitment was really the only way to handle a concept that was so new and different — basically a hybrid of a late-night talk show and an old-fashioned variety show, but airing five nights a week.

For NBC to learn if the concept would work, this show would have to run at least a year, Zucker explained, because the whole plan was based on the network’s belief that Leno’s show, with 230 new episodes produced per year, with no repeats outside of Leno’s six vacation weeks, would, at various times of year such as the summer, out-compete the other networks whose shows in the 10 p.m. time period would each only have 22 episodes.

To NBC, that seemed to mean that the Leno show would be well-positioned to win the time period in those many, many weeks when the competition was in reruns, or was using the 10-11 p.m. hour to try out various replacement shows.

And Zucker insisted that ratings, at least for that first 46 weeks, would not be a reason to yank the show.  However, that is exactly what has happened — low ratings are the reason NBC is shelving Leno’s 10 p.m. show, leading to the spectacle now on view in which the network tries to cram Leno and Conan both into late-night and, as a result of this bungled effort, might now lose one or both of them.

Zucker might have been sincere last May (and all the other times he repeated the same mantra in the months leading up to the debut of “The Jay Leno Show” last September).  Maybe the ratings really didn’t matter to him.  But apparently, the ratings do matter to NBC’s affiliates — a situation Zucker and the rest of his executive team seem not to have ever considered.  In hindsight, maybe they should have considered the possibility that affiliates would become disaffected if their late newscasts took a hit from Leno’s low lead-in numbers.

But affiliate displeasure of this magnitude is so unprecedented in network television that you can hardly blame the NBC execs for failing to plan for the possibility of an all-out affiliate rebellion in the event that Leno flopped.

On the other hand, their own company owns and operates a substantial station group whose managers might have sent a memo up to corporate at some point in the late-night planning process to ask if they should be worried about the health of their 11 o’clock newscasts.

Contact Adam Buckman:

Analyzing Conan’s letter: A deliberate jab at Jay?

January 12, 2010

Conan O’Brien: Fightin’ words


NEW YORK, Jan. 12, 2010 — Conan O’Brien’s open letter issued today to “People of Earth” contains a sentence that could be interpreted as a veiled dig at Jay Leno for placidly going along with NBC’s plan to move him back to 11:35 p.m. and thereby disrupt a traditional late-night lineup that has been in place for decades.

The line in question comes in the fourth paragraph of the letter, according to a copy of the letter reproduced on  “Last Thursday, NBC executives told me they intended to move ‘The Tonight Show’ to 12:05 to accommodate ‘The Jay Leno Show’ at 11:35,” Conan wrote.  “For 60 years, ‘The Tonight Show’ has aired immediately following the late local news.  I sincerely believe that delaying ‘The Tonight Show’ into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.  ‘The Tonight Show’ at 12:05 simply isn’t ‘The Tonight Show’,” Conan wrote.

And here’s the kicker: Writes Conan, “If I accept this move, I will be knocking the ‘Late Night’ show, which I inherited from David Letterman and passed on to Jimmy Fallon, out of its long-held time slot.  That would hurt the other NBC franchise that I love, and it would be unfair to Jimmy.”

Now, Conan doesn’t write the following, but he certainly could have, just after that sentence:  “And by extension, Jay Leno’s refusal to reject NBC’s plan to wedge a half-hour version of his own show between affiliates’ local newscasts and the proposed 12:05 a.m. start of ‘The Tonight Show’ means that Leno is a party to the network’s potential destruction of the revered ‘Tonight Show’ franchise.”

Or, to put it another way, in the very same language in which Conan voices his support for Jimmy Fallon and NBC’s “Late Night,” Conan could be implying: “If Jay Leno accepts this move, he will be knocking ‘The Tonight Show,’ which I inherited from him and he inherited from Johnny Carson, out of its long-held time slot.  That would hurt the NBC franchise I love — ‘The Tonight Show’ — and would be unfair to me.”

If Conan’s intention was to imply that Leno is not doing the right thing by acquiescing to NBC’s plan for a half-hour “Jay Leno Show” at 11:35, then Conan might have a fair point, self-serving though it may be.  Let’s face it, Conan has been host of “Tonight” for only seven months — too short a time to tell if he’s capable of restoring the show to its traditional No. 1 position in late-night.  Remember, it’s Leno, and his 10 p.m. show, who’s  getting cancelled due to ratings that have been so low that affiliates were in open revolt.  And when was the last time that ever happened?  A show has to be a pretty dismal failure for affiliates to get up in arms that way.

Maybe Leno should simply be asked to stand down, come what may.  And maybe NBC should simply honor its commitment to Conan.  The problem is: NBC execs have created a situation in which it’s probably too late to do either of these things.

Contact Adam Buckman:

No matter how you slice it, Conan got screwed

January 11, 2010

Conan’s the loser in this latest late-night story, though he doesn’t deserve to be. Jay Leno wins — again.


NEW YORK, Jan. 11, 2010 — It’s a tale of two personalities — one of them the winner and one of them the loser.

Jay Leno’s the winner, of course.  He’s about to reclaim the 11:35 p.m. start time he prefers for his nightly show on NBC.  And while the show is being billed so far as a half-hour idea, it will likely morph into an hour, and will likely be “The Tonight Show” by the time it premieres after the Winter Olympics because, really, how in the world can Conan stay at NBC after how the network has treated him.

Thus, life goes on for Jay Leno, who is one of these guys who is either very, very lucky or very, very skilled at coming out on top.  This is the second time he’s won this kind of thing — the last time, in ’92, the odds favored David Letterman taking over for Johnny Carson.  But Leno — the old-fashioned, blue-collar “tell joke, get check” comedian  — worked harder to win over affiliates and NBC execs and wound up the winner.

He reminds me of that “Seinfeld” episode, in which bad things happen to Elaine, good things happen to George, and Jerry remarks that no matter what happens around him, his life remains level and well-adjusted.  Leno’s the same way — while TV execs scramble around worrying and tearing out their hair trying to navigate their way out of an impossibly complicated situation they made for themselves, he can be found with his head under a car hood (seemingly) waiting patiently for the moment when someone will call him up and inform him he’s getting “The Tonight Show” back.  He makes it seem as if he doesn’t care, although he does care, a lot.  Still, in his sometimes goofy way, Jay Leno is the coolest cat in the room.

While Jay wins, Conan loses.  It didn’t have to come out this way.  NBC could just as well have decided to dump Leno’s 10 p.m. show and then dump Leno.  So what if he goes somewhere else?  There’s no guarantee he’d do as well.  In addition, his options are pretty limited — ABC is the only network that might have made sense for him, but their guy is Jimmy Kimmel and he’s doing pretty well; anyway, that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.

In some ways, NBC’s original plan was sound.  They were  right: In a few years, they would have had to find a new host anyway as Leno aged.  What they should have done was just keep Conan on “Tonight” because at some point, CBS will lose Letterman (in 5, 10 years? It doesn’t matter — time flies pretty quickly).  And then, Conan would have been the veteran late-night star everyone would have turned to and he would have been No. 1.

Hey, I’m not even a huge fan of Conan’s “Tonight Show,” but he’s getting a very raw deal.  Sure, he might be enriched by this rumored payoff of $45 million (the reported “penalty” supposedly included in his contract with NBC if the network reneges on “The Tonight Show”), and who wouldn’t love to receive $45 million?

Still, the reality is this: Conan’s getting canceled after just seven months.  His career, which did nothing but rise for nearly 20 years, is suddenly in jeopardy.   NBC is trying to make it seem like he hasn’t been canceled; he’s just being moved by a half-hour.  But really, what else can you conclude but that Conan didn’t work out as host of the traditional “Tonight Show”?  That happens to be a “first” — no one in the show’s storied history has ever failed at it, but that’s exactly what NBC is saying here.

Now, instead of representing the future of late-night TV, Conan joins the list of the late-night also-rans — Chevy Chase, Rick Dees, Pat Sajak and seemingly scores of others.  Sure, you can argue that his long tenure as host of “Late Night” should earn Conan a higher perch in the hierarchy than Chevy Chase.  And you would be right.  At the same time, however, moving to Fox to host a new, untested late-night show represents a demotion.  It’s a consolation prize and a weak one at that, since Fox has no history in late-night except for its failures with Joan Rivers and Chevy Chase back in the ancient ’80s and ’90s.  And there’s no guarantee the Fox affiliates even want a late-night show.  Moreover, even in fourth place, NBC is the classier of the two networks.  Conan’s comedy is more like the comedy of “30 Rock” and “SNL” than the gross-out humor of “Family Guy.”

In the end, this misadventure seriously damages Conan’s reputation.  And whether you like his comedy or not, he — along with all the loyal members of his team who all relocated to California from New York — did not deserve this.  They’re a great group of people — Conan too.  The screwing he’s getting from the company to which he has been loyal for so long, is just breathtaking.

Contact Adam Buckman:

Late-night twists and turns: NBC gets the bends

January 8, 2010

Chin music: Jay Leno laughs all the way to the bank while NBC squirms.


NEW YORK, Jan. 8, 2010 — A couple of things struck me in the last 24 hours or so as this story about NBC giving up on its Jay Leno experiment has gained steam.

First: You have to love a story that invites you to sit back and watch while a TV network and its executives contort themselves into pretzels in order to find their way out of the convoluted mess they made for themselves.

Just look at the plans being floated in all the press accounts today, based mainly on interviews with unnamed sources — all of them panicky execs putting out all kinds of scenarios that have NBC bending over backward to somehow accommodate both Jay and Conan.  This plan to run a half-hour “Jay Leno Show” at 11:35 p.m., followed by Conan’s “Tonight Show” at 12:05 is shrewdly calculated to please no one — not Jay (OK, maybe a little), not Conan (especially him), not Jimmy Fallon (whose show will then start a few hours before sunup), and not viewers.   Don’t you just love the TV business?

Second: Remember why NBC set this whole Jay-Conan thing in motion in 2004 in the first place?  The network said then it wanted to set the stage for a smooth transition on “The Tonight Show” that would prevent the outbreak of the kind of chaos that accompanied Johnny Carson’s retirement in 1992.

Well, nice try, NBC.  Despite your best efforts (or actually, because of them), the tumult in late-night, while different in its particulars this time around, is really on par with ’92-’93.  You have a network trying to juggle its top talent and keep them (if for no better reason than to prevent them from defecting to competing networks) — a task somewhat akin to a slow-witted kindergartner’s attempts to hammer a square block into a round hole.  And the whole thing — shifting Leno to and fro, moving Conan to 11:35 and then pushing him back a half-hour later — is wreaking havoc on the very people that matter most, the viewers, who have had to relearn their late-night viewing habits and will now have to relearn them again.

And third: What does this new drama say about the state of network television?  So-called “experts” have been telling us for several years that network television and its old-fashioned business model — you know the one: A network of affiliated stations covering 98 percent of the country all carrying the programming of a single over-the-air program provider — had at least one foot in the grave and at least a few toes of its second foot.

Then what happens?  A group of network affiliates — local stations that still “broadcast” the old-fashioned way and represent the very vanguard of what you might refer to as old TV media — still have enough juice to bring a network — NBC — to its knees and force changes that the network never dreamed it would have to make, at least not this soon and certainly not at the behest of a bunch of affiliates.

What happens now?  Hopefully, more turmoil and indecision — what better way to start the weekend!

Contact Adam Buckman:

Dick Clark’s a hero; his critics are zeroes

January 4, 2010

How can you complain about Dick Clark (right)? His appearances on his “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” special on ABC are nothing less than heroic.


NEW YORK, Jan. 4, 2010 — I really can’t believe I am reading complaints from some critics about Dick Clark’s appearance on his annual “Rockin’ Eve” New Year’s special on ABC.

One critic I read actually advised Dick to “hang it up,” indicating that it’s become just too darned awkward or even depressing to watch the aged TV personality — who turned 80 on Nov. 30 —  because Dick has become immobilized from the stroke he suffered in 2004.  Another critic actually complained that Dick’s slurred speech makes it too difficult to understand him, rendering him — Dick Clark, the consummate broadcaster who happens to be  beloved by everyone but these critics — somehow unfit to appear on TV and usher in the New Year.

And at some point in last week’s New Year’s countdown, Dick apparently fumbled ever so slightly on the backward recitation of the seconds ticking down to the new year and the usual anonymous peanut gallery on the Internet wasted no time posting the video in order to jeer at this barely noticeable “screwup.”

It really is an indication of how nasty we’ve become when a beloved national institution such as Dick Clark is harassed mercilessly for having the nerve to appear on television after having a stroke.

Hello?  The man had a stroke, for heaven’s sake.  It should go without saying, but apparently needs to be said in this thoughtless, mean-spirited era in which we live, that this 80-year-old stroke victim’s willingness to rigorously rehabilitate  himself and then agree to put himself out there in public in front of millions of TV viewers represents an act of heroism for which he should be cheered, not jeered.

It just so happens that millions of people have strokes and then struggle in the aftermath to continue leading productive lives.  Dick Clark is a hero to these people, and should be a hero to anybody else, stroke victim or otherwise, who possesses the common sense (not to mention decency) to recognize a demonstration of true courage when they see it.

It also just so happens that Dick Clark is one of the finest people you will ever meet in the TV business.  To suggest that in choosing to appear in public, seated in a chair because he cannot stand or walk and slurring his speech, Dick Clark just can’t bear to abdicate the limelight is just ridiculous and, knowing Dick, just plain wrong too.

May Dick Clark ring in the New Year for the next 20 years.

Contact Adam Buckman:

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