Jay Leno and especially Conan O’Brien aren’t enjoying the NBC late-night situation. (If O’Brien accepts the move to 12:05 — and he may decide he doesn’t have a choice — it will seem like a sucker’s move, given that Leno’s move to 11:35 is so clearly a stalking-horse for giving him the whole hour again. Once the new arrangement is in place, all the network has to do is expand Leno’s show to an hour, and bam, the pre-2004 status quo is restored. Keeping with Jeff Zucker’s mission to make everything exactly as it was in 2003.) But you know who’s enjoying it a bit? Their competitors on other networks. Particularly low-rated guys like Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Kimmel, who never do great but keep on hanging in there, and can get a little schadenfreude in noting that they have more job security than higher-rated dudes like Leno and Conan.
Update: As noted in comments, Ferguson’s show has been beating Fallon (making it a major beneficiary of the NBC shakeup, even before this happened) and even beat O’Brien sometimes toward the end of O’Brien’s previous show.
Here’s Craig Ferguson’s pardonable snicker:
The big lesson from the Leno-at-10 fiasco is that a broadcast network cannot get away with making life miserable for its affiliates. Remember, NBC forced this down the affiliates’ collective throat, pressuring one affiliate in particular that didn’t want to take Leno. The network thought it had quelled the rebellion, but it hadn’t, and the collective pressure from the affiliates ruined a plan that otherwise was going more or less as intended. Leno’s ratings were more or less what NBC and its advertisers expected. But it was killing the local news.
And that brings us to the other lesson, which is that the late-night format doesn’t work in prime time, and that’s because in prime time, you have to care how the episode ends. Prime time television is built to keep you watching until the end, so that you will still be around to watch whatever comes afterward. Even a prime time show with no story, like a variety show, will be structured and paced in an aggressive way, to encourage you to wonder what’s coming next.
Late-night TV, on the other hand, is not really built to keep us watching, because it would be pointless: most of us are going to tune out at different times, depending mostly on when we’re going to sleep and when we have to get up in the morning. The late night format, then, makes every segment a sort of freestanding little show within a show; it doesn’t have the relentless feeling of one segment leading to another that a prime time show has to have. It’s a format where momentum is not important, because it’s not competing with other things we could be doing (the only thing to do at that hour is watch another late-night show). Its main objective is to keep us awake, but we always feel like we can tune out at any time and not miss a whole lot.
You see how this applies to Leno. There was no momentum to the show, no drive to the next segment and certainly no pressure to keep on watching until the end. It was also a bad show, of course, but even a better show of that kind would have trouble making it in prime time. It just doesn’t make us feel like we’ll miss the Greatest Thing Ever if we stop watching.
So, that said, here’s Kimmel (with a very special guest) on the situation, with a — quite literal — pie chart to explain everything: