Saturday, March 6, 2010

Jay's back in the NBC saddle ... for now

from Wayne Friedman:

NBC's 'Tonight Show' Problem Has Started All Over Again

A media critique by Wayne Friedman, Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Five years after NBC answered the question the first time, it's now coming up again: Who will be the next "Tonight Show" host?

Jay Leno starts perhaps another 18-year run. But he'll retire one day -- or be pushed out again. NBC told Leno five years ago: "You're on top now. But it won't last. We'll need to replace you." It lasted way longer than the geniuses at NBC figured it would.

Still, NBC is quietly -- with hopefully less egg on its face -- working up the nerve to ask the same question again. That's the weird thing about television. You can't dictate or guess with any specific accuracy when things will fail -- or succeed.

Of course, we can all be wrong. Maybe even NBC -- again. Maybe in another six months when Leno's ratings are tanking, NBC will start up a plan to install Jimmy Fallon in the chair in 2015 -- and give Leno a 9 p.m. five-day a week variety show.

Running a TV network like a consumer products company makes no sense. On-air talent are certainly brands -- but they are always in an amazing amount of flux. Swiffer and Crest are good stable brands because they don't talk back too often, get in hissy fits, or threaten to go to Fox if they don't get their way in a salary negotiation.

The question is whether Leno's next move will truly be his - like Johnny Carson in 1992, when he surprised a big upfront audience with the message that he was leaving the show -- with no one at NBC expecting any of it.

NBC still doesn't like surprises. Thus the attempted move to keep Letterman as a backup to Leno; thus the move to have O'Brien waiting in the wings for five years; thus the move to keep Leno, and O'Brien -- just in case O'Brien didn't work out.

At least they were right about O'Brien -- kind of!

What's the next move? Perhaps in five years, it won't come from either NBC or Leno, but from increasingly weary viewers who will scratch their heads, yawn, and say good night to "Tonight."