Friday, January 29, 2010

Goodnight, And Good Luck, Jay Leno

Watching Jay Leno interviewed by Oprah, he cut a more sympathetic figure — people often do, even or especially when interrogated, which the Queen of talk did not. But Winfrey asked nearly all the right questions and got Leno to the precipice a couple of times, making the contours of the recent late night skirmish clearer and perhaps also, despite himself, his own motives.

Leno has enjoyed unique success but laudably remains a blue-collar guy, a lot like the younger one who left Massachusetts in a beat-up car, listening to James Taylor and wondering if anyone would hear from him again. And he probably really is the hardest working man in show business, spending something like 200 days on the road doing stand-up and revealing to Oprah that he lives on what he makes without his NBC salary — an astonishing fact given his expensive car hobby, to say the least.

In my psychobabble view I liken Leno to Regis Philbin, a genuine child of the Great Depression who has to work, always work, always save, because you never know when you will lose it all, just like that (after that the similarities pretty much end; years ago in a conversation on the air it became painfully apparent that Regis had no idea even that he drove Jaguar.)

So here is the problem: Leno accurately (in my view) said this mess was driven by interests of the affiliates, whom he has always studiously courted, and acknowledged that NBC itself was making money on his show by dramatically cutting costs for the 10 pm period (scripted episodes, Leno said, cost $3-$6 million per). The affiliates, though, were losing money because he was losing his time slot big time, and in TV Land affiliates are like real shareholders who can and should have significant say about network programming.

Leno also said that The Tonight Show's ratings were down about 50%, and that it was losing money for the first time in its 60-year franchise, and that this fact largely escaped press scrutiny probably because the better story was him, the future of television, cratering at 10.

So, the first circle I can't square is the apparent fact that, even though The Tonight Show was a bigger relative ratings bomb, it was the failure of The Jay Leno Show which got this snowball rolling, something Leno indirectly acknowledges with answers here and there is the case but doesn't accept square on, by returning again and again to the fact that Conan O'Brien wasn't doing well, and worse than him.

But by Leno's own account it wasn't a desire to do something about O'Brien, as poorly as he was doing in his first seven months against the well-established David Letterman. Indeed, the NBC master plan assumed O'Brien would stay — NBC was not engineering his ouster. They wanted to keep him. What they didn't want was Jay at 10 anymore, lowering the tide for The Tonight Show as much as it was for the affiliate 11 pm news shows.

Trying to keep O'Brien may have been based primarily on a desire to save a large severance rather than a gut feeling that he would become a good earner. But they tried to keep him — and Leno, per Leno, in a sort of cruel poetic justice of the same dynamic which caused the network to lose Letterman in 1982 as they tried to keep both late night hosts and picked Leno for "Tonight."

But still, NBC approached Leno first, and not with a plan to outright replace an O'Brien the network assumed would play ball. O'Brien's departure was not a fait accompli, or even contemplated. Leno could have walked, accepting the consequences of breaking his contract it sounds like NBC was on solid ground not to re-negotiate much, given the very public direness of the 10 pm situation, and become a sympathetic one-man Grateful Dead working the crowds he loves forever.

I've been there and done that, he could have laughed. Stop firing me and then coming to me to solve your problems, he could have told NBC in his own letter to the People of Earth.

My other problem is that, in the end, it seems that Leno and O'Brien were both presented with the exact same choice and decided in the exact opposite way. This is telling: O'Brien didn't want to be moved (and The Tonight Show to change it's start time for the first time in its 60-year history) but was determined to protect the financial interests of his staff, for whom he negotiated something like $12 million in severances.

This is probably enough for some to retire and for the others to hang on while finding something else in the business, or to re-invent themselves. As a person who was once given a generous buyout to leave my job, I can say that there is nothing ultimately more liberating than this — as great as it is not to have to worry about not having a job.

But, oh yeah, you always worry about that. In TV perhaps more than in any other business. In fact, I have always had a nagging sense of guilt about engineering a continuing situation for one person on my former staff instead of perhaps forcing the company to make him an offer of a buyout or a job. By doing so I gave myself and the company — and not him — the power.

So largess and concern can have unintended consequences or can, I now suspect about Leno, mask one's true motives. Leno was concerned about the fortunes of his staff, he told Oprah, and decided on their behalves that the right thing to do would be to ensure the continuity of their employment by ensuring his own.

It may be that concern for his staff (they are not his employees, because he does not own the show) was his over-riding consideration. He did pay them out of his pocket during the writer's strike, and pretty much devoted his last Tonight Show (well, so far) to what seemed like a family picnic. Anyway I believe he believes it, to paraphrase Leno when he playfully suggested to Oprah that she had no more intention of fading away with her announced retirement next year than he had now to take take this opportunity to leave the stage.

But, after this interview, I am not so sure. Leno is a decent guy, but flawed in a way the younger and less experienced but perhaps more confident O'Brien is not. Even though Leno initially asked to be let out of his contract when he told his 10 pm show would be canceled, any resolve to walk away, and then shame NBC to do right by his people as O'Brien did, disappeared.

I can only think of one reason why this is true.

[Transcript of the Oprah interview]


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