Back in 1992 they screwed up royally by not giving The Tonight Show franchise to David Letterman. The end result was that they split up their monopoly on late night. So while Leno may have been "winning" the late night wars against Letterman and Nightline, at best he was only ever capturing just over a third of the viewing audience, an audience that had been overwhelmingly watching The Tonight Show exclusively when it was the only game in town.
What followed was 17 years of mediocre, middle-of-the-road comedy. Ironically, during Leno's early, lean years, he and Jerry Seinfeld purportedly would sit around and make fun of the very sort of pablum he churned out night after night. Meanwhile, Letterman was proving his worth by being able to create and maintain a competitive late night franchise at CBS from scratch. The only good thing to come out of the Leno Tonight Show was the arrival to the scene of Conan O'Brien, a virtual unknown at the time who ended up, after a rocky first year, creating cutting edge, absurdist late night comedy that appealed to a young audience, and paving the way for the likes of the Farrelly Brothers, Todd Phillips and Judd Apatow.
On to the present, and NBC's complete lack of class and common sense. As of today, according to some sources, they have to decided to give Leno back the Tonight Show and fire Conan. To make matters worse, they are now blaming Conan for the ratings failures of the Tonight Show, refusing to lay any of the blame at the feet of the IDIOTIC decision to replace hour-length narrative and reality programming with 5 nights-a-week of Jay Leno. Even though Leno's show clearly was going to dilute the appeal of The Tonight Show from the get go by presenting what was an identical show an hour and a half earlier. Plus, Leno was a complete disaster, revealing that he is, in fact, simply not funny. The audacity of this revision of history makes one's head spin.
So who or what is to blame? Back to some history. When Jeff Zucker took over as Entertainment President in 2000, NBC was the number one network, and now it's in fourth place. Plain and simple, the buck stops with Zucker.
In the 9 years since, Zucker failed to create and grow a single, lasting narrative program, maintained only one reality show, The Biggest Loser (developed by Ben Silverman, who NBC then fired) and allowed their other successful programs, Fear Factor and The Apprentice, to whither and die on the vine. He had numerous chances to try to develop long term shows to replace exiting ones (Friends, ER, West Wing), and even had a handful of critical hits which could have done the job, such as Kings and Studio 60 (which ironically predicted the network's woes during it's run), but promptly cancelled them all after single seasons. He failed to acquire A-List shows such as Mad Men, letting other broadcast and cable networks pick them up and run with them, choosing instead to develop clunkers like the Friends-spinoff Joey and the meandering Las Vegas. Even going back to the proverbial well he failed to deliver, taking recognizable commodities such as Knight Rider and The Bionic Woman and creating properties that were, respectively, less than B-movie quality and mind-numbingly pretentious. And of course, recycling Leno at 10pm proved to be his most public failure to date.
It's easy to understand why Zucker has been such a poor choice to head NBC. He spent 12 years at the Today Show, where he helped make that brand a dominating number one morning show. Good for him. However, after 12 years of producing people talking about soft news and entertainment, that's ALL he was qualified to do. He hadn't the faintest idea how to create interesting and narrative programming. And because he produced a daily "news" show, he didn't have the attention span to understand that shows that rely on stories rather than sound bytes need time to develop an audience.
But Zucker's not solely to blame here. Jay Leno bears a huge share of this burden. Because "Emperor" Leno isn't wearing any clothes. He's NOT FUNNY. His 10pm show was even weaker than his Tonight Show in terms of content, and no amount of band riffs can cover up his over-reliance on typos, viral videos and making fun of unexpecting people on the street.
"Oh yes, Jay, show us how stupid people are by asking them simple trivia questions - you're quite the everyman. But don't attack the people in power who have created the educational void that's led to that ignorance - no, no, that would rock the boat! Comedians don't do that, right? "
Even the opening of his new show was unbearably egomaniacal. A montage of clips of Jay Leno growing up? Are you SERIOUS? Where was the ending shot of him awarding himself the Congressional Medal of Honor?
Meanwhile, back in the present, Conan O'Brien has been conducting himself with poise, humor and dignity, releasing a brilliantly worded (and quietly hilarious) statement of his position. And in response, NBC executives, Dick Ebersol in particular, have started hurling dirt at him, trying to scapegoat O'Brien for all of NBC's late night woes. Truly school on a Saturday boys... school on a Saturday.
But why? Why is NBC screwing over O'Brien so badly and not standing by him to try to maintain both the Tonight Show and NBC brands? It hardly makes business sense - the sanctity of the brand is far more valuable a commodity than short term ratings and revenue; it's obvious NBC understands this as they plan on losing $200 million on the upcoming Winter Olympics.
So why? Well, and this may be a stretch, I think it's personal. When Jeff Zucker was at Harvard he was editor of the Harvard Crimson, the school's newspaper, where he encouraged competition with the Harvard Lampoon. The Lampoon was always funnier, better written and more popular than the Crimson. And the editor of the Harvard Lampoon? Conan O'Brien*.
For Jeff Zucker, revenge is a dish best served pathetic.
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* Zucker and Conan both majored in History (Conan also majored in Literature). Conan graduated magna cum laude. Zucker... did not.