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Lessons from the Leno-Conan 'Tonight Show' disaster

There may be no bigger mistake in modern television history than the slow-motion dismantling of NBC's prime time and late night lineup that followed the failure of the 10 p.m. Jay Leno Show.

Other than the network's news and sports programs, there are few areas of NBC's business which weren't touched by Leno's failure: from strained relations with affiliates which saw ratings drop by 20 percent at 10 p.m. to castoff-yet-promising shows such as the police drama Southland (now airing on TNT) and the achingly public humiliation of a host many thought would prove the future of the network's late night franchise, current Tonight Show host Conan O'Brien.

Now, as rumors persist that the network is near announcing a deal paying O'Brien $30-million or more to leave NBC and return Leno to his old 11:35 p.m. time slot, I'm hoping this list of hard-learned lessons will be enough to cap the discussion for a while.

At least until Leno tries hosting the Tonight Show again in March.

Lesson 1: Never underestimate Jay Leno. Say what you will about the mighty chinned one, but Leno has managed to get what he wants at every turn of the late night TV soap opera — from the moment he snatched the Tonight Show from David Letterman over Johnny Carson's preference nearly 20 years ago, up to his yearlong effort to thwart NBC's attempts to move him off the Tonight Show throughout 2009.

Leno's every-guy image has suckered lots of TV types — he famously claims to have no manager or agent, but employs one of the toughest lawyers in Hollywood — and he has continued to try playing the victim in this palace coup. Indeed, the only thing Leno seems to hate more than being seen as a backstabbing Hollywood type is losing the TV job he's held for the last 17 years.

The only question left now: Has his down-to-Earth image been permanently punctured by his too-visible takedown of O'Brien?

Lesson 2: No matter how much they want, network executives cannot force industry change. NBC's biggest mistakes in the Leno/O'Brien debacle was in trying to push TV audiences where they didn't want to go. First, they tried to predict when viewers would be tired of Leno by setting a date for him to give up the Tonight Show. When it turned out viewers still wanted to watch him five years later, they were pushed into gambling that affiliates don't matter so much and it wouldn't matter what they aired in that hour, as long as it made money.

Turns out, content still matters on network TV, and the affiliates could squawk loud enough to force immediate changes. In the process, NBC's bad bets have upset the guys who own NBC stations nationwide, the guys who make 10 p.m. dramas, most young comics who admired O'Brien and anyone in the TV audience who ever got mistreated by a boss.

That's a lot of bad vibes to tie around one network's brand.

Lesson 3: Nice guys finish last in network TV. In the handful of times I've met him, O'Brien seems to be a smart, talented, earnest guy who quite remarkably grew into a job that seemed beyond his abilities 15 years ago. But when he did nothing as NBC let Leno park a thinly veiled version of the Tonight Show at 10 p.m., I wondered whether he had the killer instinct to survive the late night TV game.

Unfortunately, O'Brien didn't get tough with NBC until they had already chosen to push him out of late night by suggesting he air at 12:05 p.m. By then, network types likely calculated he would either accept the deal and be their stooge forever, or he would leave NBC as The Guy Who Couldn't Beat Leno or Letterman. Only in network TV (or perhaps politics) would they guy who screwed everything up — Leno — be the guy who gets the big job back.

Lesson 4: TV doesn't have time to develop shows anymore. Any TV expert will tell you, it takes time to change people's viewing habits long-term. It took O'Brien and Leno more than two years to turn their shows into successes when they first got late night hosting jobs. But today's TV environment moves too fast; neither Leno nor O'Brien got enough time to make their new shows work.

Worse, neither man seemed willing to change for new audiences; Leno seemed unenthusiastic about 10 p.m. from the start (the speed at which he closed a deal to retake the 11:35 p.m. slot reveals his likely relief at getting back the job he knows best) and O'Brien seemed to stick with his young-skewing shtick without considering how many viewers it might repel.

Lesson 5: Managing a TV network requires more than good accounting skills. NBC Universal chairman Jeff Zucker is quite rightly taking a massive level of criticism for presiding over this painfully public late night civil war. Though he handled the loss of Katie Couric to CBS well, Zucker seems to have fumbled every other major programming challenge NBC faced in recent years, from finding hits to replace Friends and ER to securing the future of late night.

As Comcast attempts to take control of the company, it had to keep him on to minimize any misgivings about the massive deal, but the cable company may come to regret retaining one of the worst executives at creating scripted television in the TV industry.

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See The Feed blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

Lessons from the Leno-Conan 'Tonight Show' disaster 01/18/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 18, 2010 2:46pm]

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