Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Jay Leno's winning hand

Do you remember where you were on that autumn day in 2004 when you heard the shocking news that NBC was going to replace Jay Leno with Conan O'Brien in five years?

It was shocking because the Tonight Show host had just signed a new contract, because he was number one in the ratings, and because nobody gets five years' notice that they're going to be fired.

Even in a business that competes to deliver ever-younger and more gullible audiences to advertisers, it was shocking that NBC would openly insult Jay Leno's viewers by publicly declaring that they were old and unwanted.

Jay Leno's old and unwanted audience was still delivering top ratings and profits for NBC when the clock ticked to the doomsday moment, and suddenly the decrepit old viewers of 2004 looked like a potential ratings smash for a rival network, a nuclear weapon that ABC or Fox could use to blow up Conan O'Brien.

And so the very best minds in the very worst business reached a wildly extravagant and screw-proof deal for Jay Leno to stay at NBC.

If he succeeded at 10 p.m., terrific. If he didn't, they knew a secret that would allow them to push Conan out of the way and put everything back as it was before.

NBC's agreement with its affiliates allows it to start the Tonight Show as late as 12:05 a.m. to allow for those occasional half-hour special reports on tennis championships, or the Olympics, or similar big events.

And now there are reports that Conan O'Brien's contract doesn't actually specify or guarantee the Tonight Show's time slot.

So NBC is able to avoid a huge contractual penalty payment to Conan O'Brien by moving the Tonight Show out of the Tonight Show's historic time slot instead of canceling it or firing him, and perhaps they could even sue him for breach of contract if he leaves the network. Conan's management team didn't see it coming when they negotiated his NBC contract six years ago.

Conan told his viewers he won't do the Tonight Show at 12:05 a.m. and he accused the network of trying to dismantle the great Tonight Show franchise. He complained that he was not given as much time as his predecessor -- only seven months -- to develop the formerly number-one show into a ratings success.

Now Jay Leno is being blamed for undercutting Conan O'Brien by staying at NBC, by delivering weak prime-time ratings that allegedly hurt the late-night schedule, and by agreeing to move back into the 11:35 p.m. time slot.

But the larger story here is the shattered myth of the all-powerful youth audience. Back in 2004, NBC executives were terrified that Conan O'Brien would go to another network and take the future of television with him. They had no confidence that Jay Leno could hold on to younger viewers. They made a bet that in five years, the decision to replace Jay with Conan would look like a stroke of genius.

Not quite.

Maybe someday, someone will bet against the Baby Boom and win.

Don't bet on it.

Copyright 2010