Friday, April 3, 2015

What Were They Thinking?: "The Jay Leno Show"

It's not too often that one gets to see a television network self destruct by making one bad decision, but those of us who follow the trials and tribulations of television got to see just that in 2009. That's when NBC almost killed itself with the colossal blunder of green lighting The Jay Leno Show. 

It all started several years before. NBC wanted to lock down Conan O'Brien to host the Tonight Show and send off Jay Leno with a big splash. Mr. Leno agreed that he would relinquish his chair in 2009 and retire from television. However, as his big retirement date got closer, Mr. Leno began to regret promising he'd retire gracefully. Word got out that Mr. Leno was shopping himself around and that Fox was interested in snatching him up. Faced with what they thought could be a potential disaster, NBC tried to lock Jay up with a contract for a different type of project, but he dug in his heels. He wanted to continue with a talk show, telling jokes as stale as any Bob Hope told in the depths of his career. So NBC made a decision that would threaten its very existence- it offered Jay Leno a show that would air five days a week at 10PM with a massive buyout clause that would have given Mr. Leno $100 Million if the network fired him or any reason.

NBC touted the show as a low cost money saving machine that didn't need to get good ratings because of how cheap it cost to produce. As a result a huge bloodbath occurred, with NBC canceling scores of shows, many of which were critically acclaimed like Southland, Kings and My Name is Earl. With fewer slots to fill, NBC could get rid of costly shows. It was quite telling that NBC kept touting how cost-effective this was, rather than the quality of Jay's show. 

Jay's show couldn't even meet NBC's lowered expectations. More importantly, it absolutely killed the local affiliates who saw huge declines in the ratings of their 11PM Newscasts. NBC had hoped to place third in the 10PM slot, but was regularly getting beaten by cable networks and Univision. Local affiliates began to rebel and some started dropping Jay Leno, either scheduling their news an hour earlier or airing syndicated reruns of Law & Order. One affiliate even aired Matlock reruns and got better ratings that Jay did.

With its very existence at stake, NBC pulled the plug on Jay Leno. Rather than send the comedy hack packing, however, they ousted Conan O'Brien and restored Jay to The Tonight Show. This decision was solely based on the fact that Jay's golden parachute was $100 Million, while Conan's was merely $40 Million. The only mistake Conan made was not demanding a larger severance package. 

To this day, NBC is still struggling to dig itself out of the hole it dug for itself during that disastrous 2009-2010 television season. By the time all was said and done, hardly anyone was standing up for Jay.