Late-night twists and turns: NBC gets the bends

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

By ADAM BUCKMAN

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: AdamBuckman14@gmail.com

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