Television

NBC Reportedly Prepares To Pay Off Conan O'Brien; Will Leno Stop Complaining?

Jay Leno.

Jay Leno, seen here in November 2009, has already won. Why isn't he happy? Toby Canham/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Toby Canham/Getty Images

NBC has not lost its flair for high-risk gambits.

The network may appear to be taking a conservative stance by reportedly making a deal to pay off Conan O'Brien so it can return The Tonight Show to the alleged Everyman appeal of Jay Leno, but in the process, it has drawn more attention to its string of bizarre decisions that brought us to this point. Unless Leno very quickly re-establishes himself as the King Of Late Night, it's almost impossible to imagine just how ugly things are going to get.

It's important to keep in mind, as Twitter and the world of celebrity lean madly in the direction of Conan over Jay, that Jay Leno has a fan base made up largely of people who couldn't care less that Jay Leno isn't cool, or that comedians like Patton Oswalt think his show is hacky and unimaginative. And they certainly don't care that there's no trending #jaylenoisawesome hashtag on Twitter.

They watched Leno at 11:35, and many of them watched him at 10:00, and many of them will watch him again at 11:35. You have to take off your Variety-reading glasses to see this story clearly, and that's exactly what NBC is hoping for. The network is hoping that nobody cares that Conan was treated so badly — or that if they do, they blame the network and don't take it out on Leno.

Why Jay Leno needs to stop complaining now, after the jump.

But the late-night audience is both relatively small and surprisingly pliable. A lot of people who enjoy the late-night format aren't wedded to Jay, or to Dave, or to Conan. They get into habits, but it doesn't take a huge amount of force to change those habits. That's why Conan lost ground to David Letterman in the first place, and it's certainly why Jay Leno, after a weak start back when he took over the show, eventually made up ground against Letterman and passed him. Some late-night viewers are hard-core loyalists, but many aren't. There are risks to this plan, because NBC cannot tolerate ratings from Leno that are worse than Conan's, or similar to Conan's, or marginally better than Conan's. They need a triumphant return.

They might get it. In all likelihood, most of the people who are extremely indignant over the network's treatment of Conan O'Brien wouldn't be Jay Leno viewers anyway; that's why they're angry. Whether they've been watching The Tonight Show with Conan or not — and many of them haven't, or we wouldn't be in this situation — their refusal to watch The Tonight Show if it's headed up by Leno is irrelevant; all the network wants is to get Leno's original audience back at 11:35.

Furthermore, NBC is probably right that people aren't going to change their viewing habits over their opinions of network politics. They're not going to watch Dave instead of Jay to punish NBC for uprooting Conan's staff and then leaving them high and dry.

What might hurt Leno somewhat more, frankly, is that he's been jaw-droppingly tin-eared in his public comments about the situation. Almost as soon as the rumors started that his 10 PM show — which he's made it clear he never really wanted — was being canceled, he started doing jokes complaining about the network's mistreatment of him, complaining that his show was being canceled.

Then came the announcement that he was getting his show at 11:35 back. In other words, he was getting exactly what he wanted, and was going to suffer absolutely no consequences for the failure of the ten o'clock show. Instead, he was going to get to push out Conan O'Brien, who had only been in the Tonight Show chair for seven months. The network had a choice between Jay and Conan, and it picked Jay. Jay won. Conan lost. Conan's family lost, Conan's staff lost, and Conan's fans lost. The risk of the Leno 10 p.m. experiment failing was, as it turned out, on Conan O'Brien the whole time, despite the fact that Conan O'Brien had nothing to do with whether it was successful. (Unlike, let's say, Jay Leno, who always seemed oddly indifferent about whether it failed or succeeded — perhaps he knew something the rest of us didn't about what was going to happen if it flopped.)

And nevertheless, somehow, Jay Leno kept complaining. He made perhaps the most ill-advised joke I have ever heard in a late-night monologue, which went like this: "Conan said NBC has only gave him seven months to make his show work. When I heard that ... seven months! How did he get that deal? We only got four! Who's his agent? Get me that guy. I'll take seven!" This, of course, is a reference to the fact that Jay Leno was getting his old job back after four months, while Conan O'Brien was losing his job forever after seven months.

How nobody pointed out to Leno that this joke could potentially make him sound like a jerk — when he otherwise has a pretty good argument that NBC moving around the schedule is not his fault — I do not know.

It seems likely that it was Leno's continued complaints and sore-winner status that made him a much more appealing target for O'Brien, and for Letterman, and for Jimmy Kimmel. If Leno doesn't talk about how NBC stands for "Never Believe Your Contract" — when he is the one getting exactly what he wants — I don't think he turns into such a punching bag. If he settles down, if he's quiet, if he says publicly, "I feel awful for Conan and Conan's staff, and I wish none of this had ever happened," if he accepts gracefully that he's the winner and somebody else is the loser, and that maybe this is not the moment to go on and on about how hard it is to be Jay Leno, he doesn't hurt himself so badly.

If anything hurts Leno, it's not going to be the network politics. It's going to be the fact that this has uncovered what seems to be a massive blind spot, where he's seen himself as put-upon by networks for so long that he doesn't know how to win gracefully. He's supposed to be the guy who's in touch with the common man, but the common man understands, even if Jay Leno does not, that there is only one short end of the stick here in terms of treatment by the network, and Conan O'Brien is getting it. It is time — it is past time — for Leno to stop complaining about finding himself in a situation precisely identical to the one he wants.

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