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October 7, 2015

Dear NBC: Just Let Jay Leno Go

by Gary Susman, posted Jan 12th 2010 6:30PM
Dear NBC,

There's a simple solution to your late-night dilemma, though you're not going to like it: Let Jay Leno go.

He's given you decades of yeoman service, including 14 years of top ratings on 'The Tonight Show.' But his time has passed. It's time to thank him for his invaluable contribution to the network, hand him a gold watch and let him spend the rest of his days puttering in his garage or doing stand-up in Vegas.(Really, he's never going to go away, but there's no reason you have to keep financing his showbiz afterlife.)

It's not like you were going to keep him anyway. Six years ago, you forced him into lame-duck retirement by promising his job to Conan O'Brien starting in 2009. Even this year, when you relied on him to save primetime for you, you said you were only guaranteeing him a one-year trial. And with Sunday's cancellation of 'The Jay Leno Show,' you didn't even hold to that promise.

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Sure, you can go through with your plan to bring him back at 11:35, for something that's Not Quite The Tonight Show, and kick Conan to 12:05 (and Jimmy Fallon to 1:05 and Carson Daly to the curb), but you'd be demoting all four men in the process. It makes them look like chumps, and it makes you look like ingrates who can't make the talent happy by keeping your promises to them (something that'll make it that much harder to attract new talent in the future).

You'll probably have to pay Jay a contract buyout penalty, but it can't be as big as the one you'll have to pay Conan if you force him out (said to be $45 million). And losing Conan would be bad for other reasons. First of all, he's more innovative than Jay, and funnier, too. Just ask Patton Oswalt, who spoke for many comics yesterday when he complained about how disappointed he was with Jay, who used to be a brilliant stand-up but who, given the greatest platform in the comedy world, did nothing with it, unlike Conan or David Letterman, who really tried to expand the possibilities of the format. (Oswalt's critique is here; it contains some NSFW language.)

Also, while you didn't really give Conan enough time to find his feet at the 'Tonight Show' (remember, it took Leno almost two years to make viewers forget Johnny Carson and transfer their allegiance), he's still managed to drop the median age of the show's viewers by 10 years in his seven months behind the desk. Leno has some devoted fans, but they're not getting any younger; if you want to attract the youthful viewers your advertisers crave, Conan's your man.

Most of all, Conan is loyal. Yes, Jay seems loyal; he's done everything you told him to do, including accepting early retirement, with only a limited amount of on-air grumbling and jokes at your expense. Well, not everything. When you ask him to butter up the local affiliate station managers, he's as happy to do so as a baby-kissing politician, but how's that working out for you? They're so upset with the damage his low ratings are doing to their cash-cow 11PM local newscasts that they've threatened to revolt, forcing you to cancel his 10PM show and forcing you into this whole dilemma. You told him to revolutionize primetime, but he delivered the same old show he's been doing for 17 years.

One might almost think Leno had sabotaged primetime by making a hack-y show, just so you'd be forced to give him back 11:35. (That's the theory suggested by Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales in an online chat today.) Now, I don't think Leno's that Machiavellian; judging by this November interview, his strategy is more rope-a-dope, a willingness to withstand all manner of abuse until his antagonists (not just the critics, but you NBC execs as well) tire out and give him what he wants. Either way, that's not the mark of a team player.

Jay Leno jokes about 'The Jay Leno Show' cancellation

Conan, on the other hand, just issued an anguished plea today to you to work things out. He doesn't want to leave; he just wants the 'Tonight Show' to stay at 11:35. He acknowledges that he has no other offers, no real bargaining position, no way to influence you other than shaming you publicly into doing the right thing, not just for himself, but for the proud legacy of 'The Tonight Show' going back more than five decades, a legacy he thinks will be tarnished if the show is pushed for the first time in more than 50 years to start after midnight, just to placate Jay. Has Jay ever expressed any sense of reverence for the franchise's storied history, or any vision for how to extend that legacy into the future?

Finally, there's no guarantee that, if Leno returns to 11:35, his previous late-night audience will return with him. For the first time in decades, Leno will be tarred with the stench of failure from his 10PM fiasco; even his old fans might consider him damaged goods.

It's not all Jay's fault; mostly, it's the fault of your own bad management decisions, from clearing out 10PM for Leno in 2008 to forcing him into early retirement in 2004 to hiring him over David Letterman as 'Tonight Show' host back in 1991. Just imagine, in an alternate universe somewhere, Dave is the host of the 'Tonight Show,' Jay is a Vegas headliner, Conan is celebrating his 20th anniversary as a writer for 'The SImpsons' and you're not facing any of the late-night problems you currently face.

But in this universe, you have hard choices to make. So let me make it easy for you. Let Jay Leno go now. It'll be painful, but much less painful than a couple years from now, when he's tanking at 11:35 opposite a still-vigorous Dave at CBS and Conan at Fox. I'll keep my fingers crossed for you -- and I'll keep Conan on my DVR.

Gary Susman

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