Three years ago, NBC announced with pride that Conan O’Brien would take over “The Tonight Show” in 2009. But now that the date is fast approaching, the web is beginning to panic: How do we anoint O’Brien but still keep Leno in the Peacock’s nest?
Aside from turning around NBC’s primetime, the biggest challenge facing new co-chairmen Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff is how to keep Leno away from Fox or ABC.
“We want him to stay at NBC for life,” Silverman told journalists at the Television Critics Association press tour. “And Marc and I are aggressively trying to come up with ideas that would make Jay happy.”
While latenight advertising sales have been soft, “Tonight” generated $250 million in advertising sales in 2006, according to TNS Media Intelligence, generating profits estimated at $160 million — or about 15% of the network’s bottom line.
NBC has already started the process of preparing O’Brien to take over “Tonight” knowing full well that it’s a job that Leno still loves and, by all accounts, would have kept longer had NBC not prodded him to step aside to make room for O’Brien.
Leno will be only 59 when the change-over is scheduled to occur, seven years younger than Carson was when he gave up the chair 15 years ago. He’s vigorous, loves to work, and as if holding down one of TV’s toughest jobs isn’t enough, he does corporate dates and travels the country doing standup on the weekends.
“Anyone who assumes he will be playing golf would have to be completely removed from reason,” said a source close to the comedian. Leno declined to talk about his post-2009 plans, which is telling: For years, the host as been accessible to the press, unlike rival David Letterman.
The network is hoping to emulate NBC News’ move from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams. Like Leno, Brokaw was also on top of his game and the ratings when he stepped aside, and now seems happy pursuing passion projects as the network’s elder statesman.
NBC has yet to present Leno with any alternatives, but among the options being floated are a primetime strip or variety show that would air once or multiple times a week, perhaps kicking off primetime at 8 p.m.; work on NBC U’s cable properties and specifically USA Network, which the net is hoping to build into the de-facto “fifth network”; Jay-on-demand through TiVo, cable, or online; or, the “Bob Hope deal,” where Leno does what he wants — just about anything but telling jokes at 11:35 pm.
The network also has the option, which many outsiders believe still must be on the table, to back out of the deal, pay a reported $40 million penalty to O’Brien and sign Leno to another five-year deal, a move that would protect the “Tonight” franchise through the end of Letterman’s deal at CBS in 2010, and the possible transition at the Eye to Jon Stewart.
NBC could, also, simply let Leno leave. A non-compete would keep Leno off another network for at least six months, allowing NBC to launch O’Brien without Leno in the mix. ABC and Fox are planning as if Leno will be in play.
One thing that won’t happen is a job-share arrangement where Leno subs in for O’Brien. Graboff raised that possibility at TCA but quickly backed off.
Graboff, Silverman and CEO Jeff Zucker will be looking to create the digital-age version of the deal that kept Hope at NBC in semi-retirement in hopes of keeping Leno at the Peacock, knowing full well Leno wants to keep going, as he often says, “telling jokes at 11:30 at night.”
“Right now that’s where Jay’s head is and that’s what he wants to do after 2009,” Graboff says. “What we are trying to say to him is, after 2009 telling jokes at 11:30 at night might not be what it is today, so maybe we can figure out a way for you to continue to do that in a different context.”
Graboff is referring to a future when the timeslot of any network show becomes less relevant as linear TV moves to a time-shifted, on-demand world. The erosion of TV ratings has hit latenight as hard as any day part, but comparatively, “Tonight” is as dominant as it’s ever been. This fall Leno will mark his 12th season in the lead over “Late Show with David Letterman,” and as of the second quarter his ratings margin was 39%.
“Tonight’s” continuing success is one reason some are skeptical NBC will implement the change as announced. Yet, NBC execs are steadfast that no matter how dominant Leno is in 2009, the transition will occur. His audience is aging, they say, and its best to attempt a transition while Leno is still on top of his game and top of the ratings.
Leno has the oldest aud in latenight, with a median age of 52, compared with 51 for Letterman and 44 for O’Brien, according to a Magna Global analysis of Nielsen ratings.
In the meantime, NBC has already begun the process of preparing O’Brien to take over the iconic franchise, and the net is already spending to lay the ground work.
NBC is in talks with O’Brien and his staff on a move from Studio 6A at 30 Rock to Los Angeles. NBC latenight and primetime EVP Rick Ludwin believes O’Brien and much of his staff will ultimately make the move, though there has been some resistance.
Johnny Carson brought the show to L.A. 35 years ago and Ludwin says the original reasons for the move are still relevant: a bigger studio and proximity to stars. A final decision on the move is expected early next year.
NBC is focusing on giving O’Brien opportunities to appear in primetime. He’s hosted the Emmys twice, and the Peacock is giving him another primetime special in late January, to further boost his profile.
He’s hosted NBC’s “50 Years of Latenight” special, as well as his own 10th anniversary special.
Taking his act from subversive to broad means some of his signature characters won’t be making the move to 11:35, such as “the masturbating bear.”
“Frankly this is one of the reasons we trusted him with the franchise of ‘The Tonight Show’ because he’s smart enough and funny enough to figure out what is going to work in whatever venue he’s assigned to,” Ludwin says.
In the beginning, O’Brien tried to distinguish himself from Leno by not doing a traditional monologue. He has adopted one since and now that he’s preparing to take over 11:30, he’s lengthened it from three to four opening jokes to 10.
NBC traveled the show to San Francisco in May, and Chicago and Toronto before that to get O’Brien and the staff used to doing bigger shows in unfamiliar, less intimate venues.
Finally, NBC has already begun the search for Conan’s replacement. “We have been talking to people about their potential interest,” Ludwin says. “It’s a short list of people who can do these jobs and do them well.”