Some Thoughts On The Tonight Show Debacle

I read an interesting piece in last week’s (February 1st 2010) New Yorker on The Tonight Show debacle.  But I thought the author of the piece,  Nancy Franklin, touched on but did not expand upon one part of this equation that in the future is going to be a very big deal.

First let’s start with the “facts” (as we know them).

1.  I suspect very few people who are fans of Conan are also fans of Leno and vice versa.  I’m sure there’s a crossover but I’m willing to bet it’s small.

2.  Conan’s audience skews young and Leno’s audience skews much older.

So here’s the thing, Leno going back to The Tonight Show is going to work fine for a while…maybe even for 10 years…because his fans will come back and the show will default back to the way it was before…fine.  But what happens in 10 years?  Maybe I’m overestimating the grudge holding ability of the Conan fans (my grudge holding abilities are practically infamous in my land) but I don’t think those young fans are coming back…EVER.

I think they’re sufficiently pissed at the way Conan has been treated (there has been picketing, ad campaigns, facebook groups, you name it in support of Conan and horror at NBC’s behavior), that in 10 years when Leno is ready to be replaced (because he’s even older than he freaking is now) there will be nobody that NBC can put in that Tonight Show chair (short of Jon Stewart perhaps) that we would come back to watch, just based on principle.

Now, I’m not the best fan of late night talk shows anyway.  I’m not a consistent viewer, watching only when the mood strikes, or when I remember to.  And I generally feel about late night talk shows the way I feel about SNL – that there are always brilliant little bits and moments – but that I’m not willing to sit through an hour of average (and sometimes below average) entertainment for those small gems – especially when I can pick them up on the news websites the following day if they were good anyway.  I just am not willing to invest in them consistently.  I also have the problem of being both a Conan fan and a Letterman fan, which worked fine until Conan took over The Tonight Show, because I didn’t have to pick.  I tried to watch more Conan once I had the option (and misfortune to have to choose between them) because I felt he needed the support since he was new to the timeslot.  However I never watched Leno.  The dude is just not funny to me.  And because of that it hurts NBC not a whit for me to vow not to watch Leno, because I never did and never would have.

However, I CAN vow to never watch The Tonight Show again**

So in the end I think this is more short-sighted BS on the part of NBC.  Sure, this might work now and they’ll get their “safe” Leno hosted Tonight Show back, but in the long run, they’ve shot themselves in the foot.  Good riddance I say.  Perhaps we should have just let Johnny Carson take the show with him when he left…it’d certainly be more respectful of his legacy than where we ended up.

As for you specifically Leno, while I don’t think that you are specifically to blame for all of this, your handling of it has been proof that I was right all along to dislike you.  I had barely any respect for you left after your writer’s strike behavior in 2007, but that little I had left has been killed dead dead dead.  You now seem like a ridiculous comic book villain to me.  Congratulations idiot.

* Credits:  Jack Ziegler cartoon taken from The New Yorker 2/8/10 edition

** Again, with the exception of a Jon Stewart Tonight Show host – which I don’t even want because I prefer him where he is – but I think Conan would understand and forgive me for going back on my proclamations in that one scenario.


  1. Blue Jeans’s avatar

    Why so much venomous hate for Leno? You wanna know the truth is was Conan that played the villain because six years ago when NBC was considering to replace Leno with him as the Tonight Show host, Conan and his people made it his mission to have this a done deal and push out the older Leno. With that attitude, Conan wasn’t saying much about his own show that he’d had for over ten years. As if to say his own self titled late night show was never really good enough for him and what he wanted all along was to host The Tonight Show.

    So he got that dream and he failed why?…because he wasn’t good enough. Ratings don’t lie. If he was good enough all his fans and supporters should have backed him up enough but they didn’t and his attempt crumbled.

    I hope this teaches NBC and all media for that matter to stop catering and ass kissing to the young demographic. That targeting a show to them isn’t gonna guarantee you a success. And that the older folks actually do matter and can make a strong impact when it comes to ratings.

  2. 1979semifinalist’s avatar

    Blue Jean: I don’t really think I do (or in the post seemed to) have venomous hate for Leno. And the reasons why I don’t like him I explained in the post.

    I never thought Leno was funny, which doesn’t mean I hate him, it just means I don’t think he’s funny and thus wouldn’t bother to watch his show.

    Recent events, as I said in the post (his behavior during the writers strike, and his behavior during this NBC Tonight Show screw up) have made me think less of him however – to the point that I actively dislike him and don’t respect him. I wouldn’t use the word hate, but dislike definitely and I think my reasons are pretty good.

    It seems like your comment is maybe more about me talking about older and younger demographics. I’m in the camp that I don’t think catering to one or the other is a wise move, and I think it’s a mistake to blatantly ignore either group. Which is why I think NBC’s move is a mistake in that they have angered, offended and insulted their younger demographic and have thus bankrupted their future with The Tonight Show. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect the older audience…but the reality is that Leno’s contract was up and it was time for him to move on. NBC had been keeping Conan in a holding pattern, dangling the carrot of “you will get the Tonight Show” for YEARS. And it was understood that at the end of Leno’s contract that is what would happen. It’s not Conan or Leno’s fault that NBC couldn’t stick to their agreement. Conan was quite patient in waiting for what was long ago promised to him and Leno nicely stepped aside (as was always agreed upon) but given the chance to take his show back Leno jumped at it – and I find it offensive that he did so. Conan deserved an opportunity to build his new audience…and that has nothing to do with young or old demographics…but the behaviors NBC pulled suggest that they have no respect for the younger demographic, which I think is going to bite them in the long run.

  3. Blue Jeans’s avatar

    I think the finger of blame should be pointed solely at NBC. They should have never promised Conan the Tonight show six years ago with their plans to bump off Leno. They did this in the first place because they were feeling threatened by Jon Stewart’s Daily Show which was getting all the young demos. They had the poor foresight in not realizing that by 2009, five years after they made this deal, that their would be such things as Youtube and Hulu that would take away a large chunk of their young demo.

    Yes they should have given Conan a bit more time to settle in on Tonight before pulling his plug. But the unfortunate thing for Conan is that the networks no longer have the patience like they use to in supporting a newbie and letting them simmer. Leno had it just as rough when he first took over for Carson in 1992 since at that time HE was the young demo grabber. He struggled for months in the ratings, trying to establish his own style to the show and trying new things and dealing with the rants of the loyal Carsonists who refused to watch “this Jay guy”.
    But to Jay’s advantage in 1992 you didn’t have the internet to compete with for the young demo and so NBC had the patience to let him get his grounding and eventually he started beating Letterman and became a success for the network.

    But I don’t see why you should blame Leno for jumping at the chance to get his show back NBC had put themselves into a corner and had no other choice. They had already screwed over Conan so he wasn’t coming back even if they got on their hands and knees. So if they didn’t ask Jay to come back….than they’d have NOBODY to host the Tonight Show. And of course NBC is not gonna let their long time late night institution just die out like that.

    Again it’s all NBC’s fault because they screwed over both guys. They should have never made promises so far ahead without knowing how the landscape of late night would be in the future. But in the end both guys got something out of it. Conan got a hefty $40mil for NBC breaching his contract and Jay got The Tonight Show back which he never wanted to give up in the first place.

  4. 1979semifinalist’s avatar

    I agree that this is primarily NBC’s problem – and a nightmare they created on their own by being spineless wimps. However, I personally do not respect the choice Leno made to take the show back. If Leno had not been willing (and excited and even anxious) to take the show back, I do not think this would have gone down the way it did. I think NBC would have stuck with Conan, because you are right, they couldn’t just leave The Tonight Show with no host. And as there are no other heir apparents…well not yet at least, their best bet would have been to stay with Conan and give him more time to build his audience.

    If Leno had stayed out of it, and told NBC that he had already had his shot at The Tonight Show (I think seventeen years is a pretty fair run) I don’t believe for a moment things would have gone down as they did, and so yes, I blame Leno for his collusion in what happened to Conan (and The Tonight Show – which I will now never get to watch again). I also think Leno tried very hard to play down his role in all of this so he could be “the good guy caught in the middle” and I don’t buy it for a moment…in part because of his behavior during the writers strike. Which as I said before, was when I first began to have doubts about Leno’s character.

  5. Blue Jeans’s avatar

    Well this whole mess just shows us viewers and fans the true ugly side of show business. Where loyalty means nothing to the suits in charge. All that matters is the bottom line $$$.

  6. 1979semifinalist’s avatar

    Blue Jeans: Agreed.

    Not to reopen the argument, but Popeater ran an interesting piece on Jay’s first night back by two old Leno fans that seems to feel similarly to me (and other Conan fans). I was surprised the piece was two people against Jay, I would have thought they’d produce one for and one against, but anyway, you might find it interesting. The first guy in particular well articulates some of the reasons I have less respect for Jay now:

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