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Leno won't have a desk; NBC exec calls Conan promos "premature" - TCA Report

by Joel Keller, posted Aug 5th 2009 9:33PM
Jay LenoAs you'd expect from a low-rated network with a lot of shows to promote, NBC held the critics captive at their TCA session by waiting until the end of the day before unleashing Jay Leno on the crowd of cranky critics. But first, in order to address some the questions Angela Bromstad and Paul Telegdy couldn't answer, late-night chief Rick Ludwin took questions for fifteen minutes.

Ludwin, for his part, was ready to answer those questions, even admitting that putting out a press release calling Conan O'Brien "The King of Late Night" after the first week of his Tonight Show reign was "premature." That's an understatement, but an admission, which is sometimes hard to get out of people in the Zucker regime. (Dan Fienberg of HitFix theorized to me afterwords that Bromstad and Telegdy briefed Ludwin on what we want to know based on their disastrous exec session. Very logical thought.)

Jay snuck up behind Ludwin as the exec was wrapping up, then took to center stage to take our questions. Nothing that he said about the program hasn't been said already: There will be no desk; he wants to get the guests out of the interview chair; he's going to conduct a "Green Car Challenge," where guests race fast electric cars; he will be going into the local news with one of his tried-and-true comedy bits, like "Jaywalking" and "Headlines."

That's the executive summary. More detailed tidbits are after the jump.

First, the salient points from Ludwin's Q&A:

  • Ludwin restated the assertion that the Leno show is DVR-proof because of its topicality.
  • "The audience doesn't want Jay to change." They want him to be the same blue collar guy that people want to have beers with, according to Ludwin (isn't that how we elected... and re-elected a President? How did that work out for us? "We don't want us to make him into the Captain or Tenille," meaning it won't be the Tonight Showa big splashy 70s-style variety show, either.
  • According to Ludwin, Conan has won every single night he's been on in 18 to 49. "That's how we keep score."
  • He doesn't expect talk-show fatigue: "We don't expect people to go from 10:00 to 2:05."
  • Ludwin expects Conan and Leno to compete for guests, but will do some negotiating because the "shows have a great working relationship with each other."
  • There will be musical performances twice a week, says Ludwin. And there will be combos of artists that viewers may never have seen before, like on the Grammys.

Now onto Jay:

  • "I'd rather be doing this than the Tonight Show. It's a challenge. It's fun."
  • "NBC thinks you hand off the tonight show when you're #1. Do you feel a little twinge? Yes." But he understands.
  • "Will there be booking wars between me and Conan? No. Will we fight like cats and dogs to get a guest? Yes."
  • One critic asks Jay where his confidence comes from: "I'm rich now," which generated a huge laugh. "If the network screws you at least you have something left."
  • "If it goes down in flames, at least we'll be laughing."
  • Jay on if he thinks he's the network's savior: "The network is on its own! Screw them!"
  • When asked about how he feels about his show replacing hours of drama on NBC, he shot back: "Let's look at all the fine scripted drama (I'm replacing): Dateline? The Biggest Loser?" He feels that best scripted drama is on cable now.
  • In defense of his show perhaps taking jobs from writers, Jay says that he pays his writers in the top 5% of those in the WGA. One thing, Jay: that's one group of writers getting work and not five different groups of writers. Epic fail on that argument.
  • Jay claimed they don't make fun of anyone on Jaywalking. Not sure I believe him.
  • I asked Leno if he's going to switch the format from day to day if needed, citing George Lopez's assertion that if he had U2 on, he'd put them first. He tried to sidestep the answer by saying U2 (I could swear he kept saying "YouTube") doesn't bring the ratings because you can see them anywhere. But he finally conceded that certain bits will air at certain times.
  • The show will start almost immediately, with 10 seconds or so of theme music. It'll also go directly into the local news without a commercial break.
  • "Do I expect to beat CSI: Miami? No. Do I expect to beat the reruns? Sure."
  • He cites TV's immediacy as its saving grace, talking about the great ratings all late night shows got after Captain Sullenberger landed the plane in the Hudson.
  • "To me, 10 is the new 11:30" - a line Jay's used before.
  • He hopes he can make some stars in the comedy world. DL Hughely will report on politics. Mikey Day and Rachel Harris will also be correspondents.
  • Brian Williams would love to contribute on a regular basis.
  • No first show guests booked yet. Set is bigger. No desk (except for maybe for last 15 mins when he does stuff like "Headlines").
  • Someone asks Jay on thoughts on Michael Jackson and Sarah Pailin. Jay shot back,: "And those two go hand in hand." MJ's death was sad, said Jay, but Palin "cheered me right up."

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August 06 2009 at 7:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"In defense of his show perhaps taking jobs from writers, Jay says that he pays his writers in the top 5% of those in the WGA. One thing, Jay: that's one group of writers getting work and not five different groups of writers. Epic fail on that argument."

Not an epic fail. If Jay had retired, his writers would be out of work (almost 20 of them. Most dramas have 8-10. So let's say that's the staff of two shows.) If Jay had somehow stayed on at 11:30 on NBC the writers of Jimmy Fallon would never have gotten work (writers out of work.)

Without Leno, NBC in dire trouble would indeed air more Dateline NBC, not risk a costly scripted show. Let's say they'd air two nights a week of Dateline (that "To Catch a Predator" bit is huge numbers and cheap.) So three nights of scripted dramas are now gone that would not have been. But Jay's writers keep working. Those shows would hire about 24-30 writers. Jay hires 20. His decision to be loyal to NBC and try something new does not take away THAT many jobs for writers of scripted TV. It does take some, no doubt.

Where is your anger with Fox for airing American Idol a second night a week? That takes away the place of scripted shows. Did you ask Simon Cowell why he's taking away jobs from writers? At least the writers of Leno are in the WGA and get health benefits. The writers of American Idol (and yes, it has writers) don't get any health benefits or money put towards their pension. Even though it's the most profitable show on TV by far.

August 06 2009 at 4:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to MIchelle's comment

Nicely said!

August 07 2009 at 11:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Green Car Challenge? Is he trying to be Top Gear now? Hang it up, Jay, you haven't had a single original thought in decades.

August 06 2009 at 1:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Jay says the best dramas are on cable yet they are why I and I'm sure many other won't be watching his show because 10:00 is the when the majority of cable dramas air. How ironic.

August 06 2009 at 12:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Topicality makes shows DVR-proof? Only if there's a "gotta do it Right Now" vote involved, and even then a lot of people build up enough backlog to skip the commercials anyway.

Plenty of people DVR not only late-night programming, but their favourite news/commentary shows as well, and you don't get much more topical than that. (Daily Show/Colbert/Maddow/O'Reilly/etc.)

Nothing is DVR-proof, and any Exec who thinks so is living in a dream world.

August 05 2009 at 10:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to RobynM's comment

Live Sport is pretty DVR proof (at least compared to Leno).

August 06 2009 at 2:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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