They say history repeats, first as tragedy and then as farce. In late-night TV, history also repeats, but it’s just comedy every time.
In this case–according to a New York Times report following on an earlier Hollywood Reporter scoop—NBC is once again planning on ousting Jay Leno from the Tonight show in favor of the younger host of Late Night. Reports Bill Carter, author of The Late Shift (the story of NBC’s Carson succession war between Leno and David Letterman), the network wants to install Jimmy Fallon by next fall, when Leno’s contract runs out.
You may remember something like this happening in 2009–10. Back then, we called it… the Jaypocalypse.
Of course, a few things are different this time. This time, NBC is planning to remove an apparently unwilling host, who’s still leading his time slot in the ratings. This time, NBC feels it needs to move pre-emptively to keep its talent from jumping to the competition. And this time, despite its Tonight ratings, it’s looking to a much younger, Internet-savvy host with an eye toward its long-term demographics.
Oh, wait: that’s pretty much exactly the same as last time—the time when NBC put Conan at 11:35 and Jay at 10 p.m., threw long-term thinking out the window as soon as the bad ratings came in, and saw its efforts to keep everyone happy end in a p.r. bloodbath of public recriminations, contract payouts, and lingering ill will.
So who can blame them for trying again? Jay Leno can! The laid-back host, who keeps a few teeth filed sharp for just such an emergency, has been turning his monologue into a shooting gallery for NBC, likening the ailing network to an extinct animal and calling its executives “snakes.” Jay is fond of saying that TV is business and that if you don’t get the ratings, you’re gone. But Jay still has the ratings, for now, even if they’re not what they once were. And it’s entirely possible that if NBC does not handle this well—and history says they won’t—that he could at least turn this into another Ann Curry fiasco, using his ouster to poison his fanbase on the network and by extension Fallon.
(Indeed, here’s the most hilarious line in that New York Times story: “Another complicating factor has been Mr. Leno’s continued success in the ratings.” Would that NBC had the same “complications” to worry about in any other part of its schedule!)
So what the hell is NBC thinking? Look, I like Fallon. I like his upbeat, welcoming tone, and I like his show’s blend of music and comedy (and especially musical comedy). I’d be glad to watch him on Tonight as I do on Late Night—occasionally, by fast-forwarding to the good stuff on Tivo. And Jay “It’s just a business” Leno deserves no man’s pity however this plays out.
But simply as a business move, it’s like NBC has a neurosis around the Tonight show. It’s so afraid of losing its dominance, so bent on controlling everything and heading off any potential competitor, that it’s driven to overwrought 3-D chess moves that bring about the very disasters they’re meant to avoid.
Is Fallon so hungry for the (much-diminished) Tonight chair, does he have so many outside options, that NBC must act now or lose him forever? Especially with the network now bleeding both in primetime and the morning, is the best move open-heart surgery on its one decent daypart? What would be the problem with saying: “Look, Jimmy, Jay’s on top and we’re going to sign him for another couple years. You’ve got decades ahead of you and you’re our future. Here is a generous raise”? Done and done.
The best argument, I would think, is the long view. In the long run, Tonight suffers without a new generation of viewers. You put in a guy who is maybe not a classic Tonight host because the world has changed. You suffer a little now, understanding that in the long, geological timeframe of late night, you will ultimately be better off. That’s entirely reasonable.
But it was reasonable when NBC went with Conan O’Brien, and I’m not convinced NBC’s current management is any more likely to follow through on a long-term plan than the Jeff Zucker administration. I can think of reasons why Conan and Fallon were good ideas. I can think of reasons why they were bad ideas. But I can’t really think of a compelling reason that Fallon is a good idea now and Conan was a bad one then. It’s the same idea, with different hair.
If I’m a pal of Jimmy Fallon’s, right now I’m asking him to think long and hard about how much he trusts NBC to have his back when his ratings drop (in the short run, anyway, Letterman could be the big winner here) or the p.r. gets ugly. Because at some point, it will get entertainingly ugly.
Ah, but maybe things really are different this time. This time, for instance, NBC may believe that Jay has fewer options for jumping ship, what with ABC just having installed Jimmy Kimmel at 11:35. (Though maybe not; according to the Hollywood Reporter, NBC is weighing installing Fallon as early as February, so that Leno can’t contractually launch a competing show until the fall.) This time, Fallon may have a patron—his producer, SNL‘s Lorne Michaels—whose wrath NBC fears even more than Leno’s. Maybe Fallon’s niceness feels like a better match for Tonight than Conan’s surrealism. And maybe the timing’s just better now. As it is, NBC is so committed that it’s renovating Fallon’s 30 Rock studio for use in his future Tonight show (which will move back to New York City after four decades).
Maybe it’s like global warming: NBC needed a few years to recognize that the TV climate really irreversibly is changing. Maybe programming TV for an era of smaller audiences and diminished expectations is indeed—as a certain magazine cover once suggested—the Future of TV, and NBC has finally accepted that. Maybe, in other words, the first Jaypocalypse just came a few years too soon, and the time is right for Jaypocalypse Now.
Maybe, but the whole business makes me feel for Conan, who got thrown under the very bus that moved him to L.A., all so he could have a show on TBS and NBC could do the same thing again with the next Late Night guy.
And in a way, it almost makes me feel for NBC. The way things are going, what seemed a Jaypocalypse a few years ago—Conan settling into his fourth year on the Tonight show and Leno getting 4.5 million viewers at 10 p.m. on the cheap—now probably looks like a veritable Jayparadise.