Last week, my parents went to Las Vegas for a four-night breather from the bitter Chicago cold. Upon returning Friday night, one of the first things my dad asked me was, "so, did you hear the latest about Jay Leno?" I knew about he was talking about, and I knew right where the conversation was going. He watched Leno's monologue almost religiously when he hosted "The Tonight Show," and he knew I'd been a Conan fan for years. He's as baffled by my taste in late night comedy and I am of his viewing choices. Obviously, I responded by defending O'Brien and stating that NBC made a mistake in backing Leno. "You only say that because you hate him," he declared. He walked out of the room before I could elaborate on what I said.
If Jay Leno is returning to 11:35/10:35c, than NBC has followed one big mistake with an even more consequential misfire. By giving "The Chin" five hours of prime time a week, NBC inadvertantly overshadowed Conan O'Brien's move to to the old Leno slot and minimized his role in the network's lineup. To move Leno's show back to its old time slot is more than rectifying a wrong, it's a concession of defeat, and above all it's a slap in the face to a tremendously funny and distinctive comedian that has been loyal to The Peacock for almost 17 years. If I were running NBC, I would simply cut bait on Leno; I wouldn't care if he jumped to another network, Letterman and Conan would soundly beat him ratings-wise night after night. Leno was a cash cow for the network, but now he's just hamburger.
Of course, I can't rant about NBC's future without acknowledging the man behind the curtain, Jeff Zucker. In the nine years since he ascended to the network's upper throes, Zucker has proven to be an ineffectual, nearsighted syncophant, and the Leno/Conan situation merely reinforces his status as an idiot in a suit. On his watch, NBC went from #1 to fourth place, from torchbearer to punchline, from record profits to being bought out by Comcast. The number of bona fide hit shows that he developed during his "reign" can be counted on one hand. In moving Leno back to 11:35/10:35c, Zucker and his peons have five hours of prime time real estate that they don't know how to fill. They may as well concede 10/9c to Shamwow and the newest Jack Lalanne juicer.
In 2005, New York magazine slammed Zucker (and rightfully so) as the embodiment of bloated self-confidence, a Hollywood outsider that tried too hard to one-up his rivals, the captain of a great ship slowly sinking in an ocean of hubris and complacency. Five years later nothing has changed, and inexplicably Zucker is almost unscathed, still large and in charge. As it stands now, the collateral damage is staggering and somebody has to clean up the mess; NBC hemorraged ad revenue with Leno in prime time, the shows that once thrived at 10/9c are barely registering in earlier time slots, and local newscasts keep losing viewers. The Peacock might be molting its feathers, but I doubt that this incomparable debacle will curb Zucker's yen for experimenting. What he'll do next is anyone's guess, though for many Hollywood insiders the reason of a doubt is long gone.