HOWARD MEGDAL: The fascinating part of the Leno/Conan debacle, for me, is less about the serious series of miscalculations made by NBC, and more how within a few years, few people will understand at all the resonance of “The Tonight Show” at all.
The past seven months have now proven what should have been obvious to everyone: Jay Leno’s audience was made up of habitual viewers. If you were were choosing between Leno and Letterman at 11:35, chances are you were older. As this June 29, 2008 Variety article makes clear, the oldest average viewer age for a late night show was Leno’s at 54; Letterman checks in just beneath that, at 53. Consider that both viewers were older than the average viewer of Nightline, hardly a youth trend on par with Facebook or Twitter.
In essence, these patterns were set when the “Tonight” audience dispersed between Leno and Letterman. And that audience didn’t have to compete with the Internet, with online media, with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report- in other words, all the things that now occupy those who began consuming late-night media after the great NBC Fiasco (Helen Kushnick Edition).
I am 29 years old, and I don’t know a single contemporary for whom Leno, Letterman or even Conan O’Brien resonates. (O’Brien, at least, can fall back on having written The Monorail episode of The Simpsons.) This is not to say that the latter two aren’t often amusing- rather, that they simply don’t exist as part of the cultural zeitgeist if you haven’t qualified for AARP Magazine’s free annual subscription.
Now, from my infrequent viewing, that has everything to do with a relative lack of sophistication compared to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, both of which seem able, in a way the network late-night offerings aren’t, to comfortably move in the fast lane of 2010 life.
That lane, where NBC, ABC and CBS aren’t the only three choices, means this battle over ratings is foolish in the extreme. There is no comparison between O’Brien’s ratings and Leno’s ratings in the early nineties because the entire landscape is utterly different. 86 percent of U.S. Households have cable or satellite television- and that was as of last year-while computers and cell phones can provide entertainment content in rough parity with television.
In other words, NBC made a calculated bet that people would watch anything at 10 PM. In reality, what they found out is that only those unprodded would continue watching anything at 11:35 PM. And I can’t help but wonder if, once Leno is restored to his perch, whether those habitual viewers will have moved on as well. Even if they return, it is a short-term gain at best.
EMILY SAIDEL: The Leno-Conan debacle presents a soap opera whose main plot is the failed experiment of short-term planning. David Carr at the New York Times intelligently questions the continued relevancy of this television format and the changing styles of television viewing. But the core of the issue was short-sighted vision, compounded with a lack of understanding of the changing television environment.
The first questionable moment was the announcement of the transition, long before it would occur. Although important for network planning and contractually to hold on to Conan, this decision put NBC in a difficult position five years later when Leno still had respectable ratings. The choice to go through with the transition or to pay out to Conan led to Conan taking The Tonight Show and the development of the 10pm Jay Leno Show.
This development decision seems to make sense, if one works under the assumption that
a) Jay Leno is popular
b) a talk show will be cheaper than a drama filling the same scheduling slot
c) people will watch anything.
Only one of those assumptions proved true.
This development decision does not make sense if
a) Jay Leno is popular in comparison to David Letterman
b) a network is interested in a coherent evening of programming
c) “acceptable” low ratings for Leno mean low lead-in ratings for affiliate 11 o’clock news
d) losing five nights of dramatic programming means not investing in a future potential hit.
The collapse of the Leno Show is so far from surprising as to have been predictable.