Leno: The Only Surprise Is That Anyone Was Surprised
Didn't NBC say at last year's upfront presentation that this was not a ratings play? The idea was to save money and change the network model, and if Fox could succeed with an 8-10 p.m. schedule, why couldn't NBC? Of course it needs to be noted that Fox affiliates generally start their local news following the network's scripted series, not after an hour-long talk show.
This may not have been a ratings play for the NBC network, but it certainly was for its affiliates, whose lucrative local news ratings declined with Leno as a lead-in. This may have been particularly true for larger markets. Last May, Leno's "Tonight Show" only outperformed the national average in two of the top 10 and 12 of the top 30 markets among the key news demographic of adult 25-54. The negative affiliate reaction seems to have blindsided everyone.
When NBC first announced its plans to move Leno to 10 p.m., and shift Conan into the "Tonight Show" slot, I don't know anyone who thought it would end well.
This was a result of the inexplicable decision (apparently made in 2004) to replace late-night leader Jay Leno on the "Tonight Show" with Conan O'Brien in 2009. The decision to replace Leno with Conan was strange on many levels.
The idea that Conan would do as well as Leno or that he would even beat Letterman was ridiculous. Leno simply has a much broader appeal. Despite what many in the press seem to think, Letterman's audience is very similar to Leno's. It was fairly obvious that more of Leno's 11:30 audience would shift to Letterman than to Conan.
The idea that Conan would be a young draw at 11:35 p.m. (following local news) was also not likely. With a median age of 47, his 12:35 show was not exactly a young draw itself. At the time of the announcement, I pointed out that when Letterman was at 12:35 (on NBC) his audience was significantly younger than Leno's . But when he moved to 11:35, his audience quickly began aging. It wasn't long before his audience's average median age was about the same as Leno's (mid-50s). The same thing would likely have happened with Conan at 11:35.
So what happens next? Well, Leno at 11:35 will likely recapture the lead from Letterman, and whoever follows Leno will probably do slightly worse than Conan originally did at 12:35. And at 10pm? NBC will have to re-populate the hour from Monday through Friday. Let's hope with something other than "Law & Order" and reality. The network will likely use the upcoming Winter Olympics to heavily promote new series, but neither the Summer nor Winter Games has traditionally been a successful venue for promoting new programming.
If nothing else, the upcoming prime-time program development season and upfront schedule announcements will be very interesting. But because of the fourth-quarter boost it receives from "Sunday Night Football," only one or two new successes could start to get the NBC back on track. As always, viewers care little about behind-the-scenes maneuvering - and they watch content, not networks. If NBC puts on good programming, people will tune in. A year from now, none of this will be a story any more... unless Conan goes to Fox.