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Jaypocalypse 2: This Time It’s Different?

This time, NBC wants to ditch Leno for Jimmy Fallon, not Conan O'Brien. What could go wrong?

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Paul Drinkwater/NBC
Paul Drinkwater/NBC

Fallon and Leno at the 2013 Golden Globes

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 scoopNBC 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.

12 comments
DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

I used to watch Conan when he followed Leno.  At first it was fresh and new.  But his gags got both predictable and boring.  You can watch the Gaseous Wiener only so many times before you decide that Southpark does fart jokes much better and you prefer Leno's calculated sarcasm to Conan's contrived nuttiness.

Then I stopped watching TV altogether and stopped caring about it.

But this does raise a bit of a point that Conan had poor "legs" when it came to holding his time slot.  He appeals to a VERY narrow demographic, and he doesn't appeal to it for that long.  I don't know much about Fallon, but based on what I've read elsewhere, his appeal is less on the rabid fanatical support of a few and more on merely above average interest to a broader base.  He offers "entertainment" that has more of a chance of going the distance than the sight/sound gags Conan mostly went for.  He stands a much better chance of NOT offending mom and pop Middle Class than Conan EVER did.

SmoothEdward1
SmoothEdward1 like.author.displayName 1 Like

If NBC gets rid of Leno they're just going to have accept the loss of the older demographic. Leno may not be the hippest, but he is consistently the most reliable ratings grabber. Jimmy Fallon is likable, but the show's writing is definitely geared toward the 20-somethings. You can't have your cake and it too, NBC.

TomShaw
TomShaw

I'd hope Leno's petulant but utterly ineffectual comments finally clue people in that he was not behind the first Jaypocalypse in any way - that was all the affiliates having a lever against the Comcast merger.


Disclaimer: I'm on Team Ferguson, but I agree with you James - NBC has bigger fish to fry than accelerating the handoff to Fallon. Do the Comcast execs really worry that Fallon will leave and, do what, exactly?

denmarks47
denmarks47 like.author.displayName 1 Like

All this hype about nothing.  Leno is a total bore on the west coast and the east coast.  The middle area:  Well what can I say.  Fallon is good.  Leterman is still the best out there.  All this said:  THERE WAS ONLY ONE CARSON.  Nobody has or will come close.


Lucelucy
Lucelucy

@denmarks47 Late night?  Daily Show!  The only thing I ever liked about Leno was that he liked motorcycles.  I used to like Letterman before he started boring me as much as Leno, but he gave me a line I use to this day, which is what I think about this kerfuffle:  That's sort of interesting, but not very.

mrxexon
mrxexon

I stopped watching the tonight show when Carson retired. How can you top Carson? You can't.

They should have discontinued the show then.


x

Boone41
Boone41

NBC has one program that wins its time slot.  So of course they want to get rid of it.  It fits the pattern of incompetency that has brought this once great network to this pass...NoBodyCares....

Hollamann
Hollamann

Good job, NBC.  I know Conan wasn't everybody's cup of tea, but I like him and think he's a helluva lot funnier than Leno or Fallon.  Of course, if NBC's late night TV over the last few years is any indication, they really aren't all that worried about being funny.

mbcls
mbcls

nbc will go to toilet guarantee! both are boring, not very funny!

BrandonK
BrandonK

Ooo, I just had a crazy idea!  So crazy it just might work!  What if there were TWO Tonight Shows?  One in NYC, the other in LA - they could be broadcast live on the coasts and Central time, and the East Coast one could be repeated for Mountain.  Both shows could be available online for those who are interested in what went down on the show they didn't watch.  I'm sure there are lots of problems with this approach (like money and a lack of cohesiveness in NBC's programming), but it's an interesting idea, if I do say so myself.

anon76
anon76 like.author.displayName 1 Like

I would say the big difference this time is that Jay isn't being offered the "Earlier Tonight" show as a lead-in to Fallon.  I have no doubt that what caused the original Jaypocalypse had very little to do with how Conan did in his new spot, and everything to do with how Jay did (and the affiliates' reactions to said performance) in his new spot.  If Leno is truly kicked to the curb this time, without a new poison pill contract for a show at a different time, then Fallon should be fine.

That being said, I like Fallon a lot as a person (heck, I cheered when I saw him in Band of Brothers), I love The Roots, I love the faux-feud with Colbert, and I even like Higgins (mostly in homonym).  However I just don't enjoy his show, even when he has guests on that I like.  So, I wish Fallon and his new show the best, even if it is something I won't be watching.