January 13, 2010
Behind the scenes of NBC’s “Tonight Show” flap
America loves a juicy Hollywood conflict.
This might explain the media’s outsize reaction to NBC’s late night programming drama involving a time switch between “The Jay Leno Show” and “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” – a controversy generating far more attention than either show garners in ratings. So why is everyone in a tizzy?
“Jay and Conan are the new Gosselins,” said a source who works for “The Tonight Show.” “There’s constantly new drama, with jokes mixed in, plus a show that’s on every night so there’s immediate turn around and reaction.”
And in Hollywood, everyone loves to see a titan fall.
Leno used to be the King of late night; now he’s looking more like the court jester. After only a few months in a primetime 10 o’clock slot, NBC has been forced – by network affiliates in revolt over poor ratings—to cancel Leno’s show. But don’t feel sad for poor ole’ Jay: his contract promises a $100 million payout, according to a source, if NBC doesn’t find him a replacement slot.
So the nice guy has to take the fall. Conan, who has been waiting in the wings for his triumphal moment on the “Tonight Show,” is getting short shrift, as the network tries to squeeze him into the second fiddle slot.
And Conan has plainly said, “No.” He doesn’t want to be “warmed up leftovers” to the network rhythm that crests with the “Tonight Show’s” comedic and topical monologue—late night’s main event. Reverting Leno to his old timeslot at 11:35 p.m. means he gets to one-up Conan with the nightcap on the evening’s run of comedies, dramas and the news broadcast.
For Conan, the demotion – and humiliation—comes after only seven months in which he was allowed to build his audience. When Leno began, it took him 18 to build a following. And now, in order to preserve their pocket change, the network is siding with the biggest loser.
A source close to Conan would not comment on whether there are visible strains between the late night rivals, but did say that Conan is “surprisingly resilient and trying to encourage people to have fun with this crazy confluence of showbiz history.” Still, the mood on the set is frighteningly tense. “We’re pretty much living in a state of uncertainly right now, but that’s the nature of TV. It’s inherently unstable.”
The question is who’s to blame for the late night gaffe? Is it Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC entertainment, who took over after his predecessor Ben Silverman’s colossal failure? Or is it Jeff Zucker, NBC’s top dog who desperately tried to lift the network from the bottom of the barrel by putting Leno in primetime. He had hoped the move would be a game changer.
Instead, NBC is messier than ever. And many in the industry are counting down until Zucker—one of Hollywood’s most powerful Jews – hits the pavement and shatters his hubris.