TCA: NBC Doesn’t Take It On the Chin for Pushing Out Leno

NBC Doesn't Take it On the

NBC Dodges Questions But Still Faces PR Headaches Down the Road

Nobody usually wins in a latenight-host baton pass, except perhaps the New York Times’ Bill Carter and his literary agent. So NBC was perhaps understandably bracing for public-relations headaches associated with elbowing Jay Leno aside — again — to make room for a newer model (this time Jimmy Fallon), even though we’re still roughly a half-year away from the actual transition.

So when NBC honchos met with assorted press at the TV Critics Assn. tour on Saturday, even they seemed surprise about fielding just one question during their formal presentation regarding latenight — “right under the wire,” as NBC Entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt put it wryly — asking about any second thoughts, or plans for Leno beyond “The Tonight Show.” (Per Greenblatt, the parties are talking, but as of now there are none.)

Nevertheless, the drumbeat of second-guessing is steadily growing. Last week, former NBC chief Don Ohlmeyer went public with complaints that NBC’s current management team must be poor students, telling the Daily Beast, “I don’t get it. It’s like nobody understands history. Here they take him off the air four years ago, and naturally he loses his impetus, and now he’s come back, and he’s kicking ass again — so let’s take him off.”

Those comments follow a ratings trend that has seen Leno assume a solid advantage over his latenight rivals, appearing to support Ohlmeyer’s basic “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” argument.

After a frenzy of rumors and coy denials, NBC finally confirmed its plans to signal the latenight bullpen in April, but Saturday marked the first chance for many out-of-town reporters to broach the subject in person. Fortunately, the current constituency of TCA is such that there’s really no such thing as a cohesive conversation or attention span, so the public Q&A produced little drama — also indicative of how lightly Leno is regarded by many in the press, having played the role of villain, despite his nice-guy persona, in past succession situations.

Ultimately, it’s hard to escape the sense NBC panicked a bit with the move of Jimmy Kimmel to 11:35 p.m. and, seeing the future, decided to make a switch prematurely. Because while the whole “Change from a position of strength” defense, which Greenblatt reiterated Saturday, might sound good, it generally flies in the face of almost anything else when it comes to tampering with a winning formula — especially since Leno has exhibited such a workhorse mentality and past desire to stay at the helm.

Greenblatt did laud Leno as “a great team player,” saying he hopes the comic will continue a relationship with NBC in the way Bob Hope did. Notably, that was also the initially stated plan for Johnny Carson, who made life easier on Leno by retiring from “The Tonight Show” and actually staying retired. Greenblatt also implied that Leno’s ratings surge might owe something to a well-spring related to the host’s announced departure, which seems questionable this far ahead of his (latest) exit.

It might all work out, of course, but as Ohlmeyer suggested, we’ve seen this movie (and read this book) before. And if this latest chapter in attempting to designate TV’s version of a royal heir is like most sequels, it promises to be even bigger and messier than the original before it’s over.

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  1. Richard Frost says:

    Leno would be wise to reinvent himself and come back on prime-time — once a week — but with a show that’s similar to Graham Norton on the BBC. Nobody is doing a show like Norton’s where all of the guests come out at the top of the show and the conversation is more free-wheeling and the unexpected is more apt to happen — like the old Johnny Carson “Tonight Show” when the couch was filled with people like Sinatra, Martin and George Burns.

  2. Jimmy just seems like the nicest comedian on the planet so really hopes he does well. Kind of surprised that Leno’s being tossed out though. He’s done nothing but succeed in terms of ratings at his job. Weird. He should do a Seinfeld like show on the net “comedians in cars getting coffee”, since they’re both comics and very into cars.

  3. Josh Blakemore says:

    For the love of God get Leno far far away from a TV camera. His time is up. He’s not funny. He screwed over Conan and no one under 50 watches him or even pays attention. He’s the lame dad who’s trying to be funny with his kids friends.

    • Dedicated Leno fan says:

      Have you taken a good look at the audience in the Tonight Show, Josh? There is a wide range of ages, with lots of people in their 20s and 30s (I am in my late 30s, btw) sitting with those in their 40s and up. That, along with the fact that Leno still dominates the late night ratings proves that people with your sentiments are on the fringes of society. If you don’t want to watch Leno, then turn your TV off or go over to Kimmel’s show.

      As for “screwing” Conan over, that is garbage. Conan and NBC shoved Conan down our throats and they learned the hard way that they cannot push themselves on the public that way. As a regular Tonight Show viewer and Jay Leno fan, I was livid when I learned that Jay never wanted to retire in the first place; NBC tried to convince us that it was his idea just so we’d stay and watch Conan and in order to avoid the backlash of pushing out Leno. Once I learned the truth, I was no longer willing to watch Conan. The only difference between then and now is that NBC is being upfront about the fact that it is their idea and not Jay’s. Mark my words: I will stop watching the Tonight Show if NBC goes through with its plan in February.

  4. Larry Howard says:

    I don’t think anyone seriously believed Carson would ever come back; that was wishful thinking on NBC’s part.

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