Its telecast of the Grammy Awards grabbed all the headlines, but CBS did something else of note on Sunday night: It devoted 15 minutes of its prime-time real estate to a major star from a competing network. The formidable newsmagazine “60 Minutes” featured an interview by Steve Kroft with NBC’s soon to depart, long-time late-night superstar Jay Leno.
For the first time in recent memory, Leno opened up on camera about his unusual relationship with the network he has called “home” since his days as the permanent guest host for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show,” the franchise he would inherit in 1992 when Carson decided to retire. The fact that he did this on one network while still employed by another is intriguing all on its own. I find it interesting that CBS would devote so much high-profile air time to a formidable competitor, especially on so important a night for the network, in effect reminding its own audience that it has only nine more opportunities to watch Leno on “Tonight.” (His final show will be February 6.)
I might ask how David Letterman, whose “Late Show with David Letterman” on CBS is consistently an also-ran behind Leno’s “Tonight,” felt about his network promoting the final shows of his competitor -- but I know better. Why should Letterman care? His fans are loyal. His compensation isn’t going to change if a few of them drift away during the next two weeks to watch the final late-night performances of a modern-day television legend.
Letterman’s primary concern should be Jimmy Fallon, whose shift over to host of “The Tonight Show” after NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympic Games is going to be the television story of the year, especially since “Tonight” is returning to New York City -- right down the street from The Ed Sullivan Theater, home of “The Late Show” -- after being telecast from Los Angeles for over 40 years. That is the biggest news to hit late night since Carson retired and Letterman left NBC for CBS.
Still, it was good to see “60 Minutes” dive into the Leno situation, in the process reminding us all that for a newsgathering information organization the news must always come first, even if there are certain conflicts involved. Leno’s departure from “Tonight” isn’t “hard” news, but it is newsworthy nevertheless. If only all news organizations that supposedly report “hard” news were similarly unafraid to potentially ruffle feathers while doing their jobs.
As for Leno, I don’t think a similarly important television personality -- one who has made hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars for his network during his tenure there -- has ever been treated more shabbily by his or her employer. NBC’s decision to dump him in 2009 (which actually dates back to 2004) and make Conan O’Brien the new host of “Tonight” was a complicated disaster from every angle -- the only people who didn’t know it was a bone-headed plan were the executives at NBC charged with making those bad choices! The consolation prize offered to Leno -- a nightly prime-time talk and variety show that debuted in March 2010 -- proved similarly calamitous.
Leno flopped, O’Brien flopped, NBC had to publicly admit that it didn’t know what it was doing, and a few months later Leno was back on “Tonight” and O’Brien was temporarily adrift. Then along came Fallon, who transformed “Late Night” into one of the most entertaining shows on television, and now Leno is once again getting tossed, despite the fact that “Tonight” still dominates in the late-night ratings race.
Leno admitted on “60 Minutes” that his age is largely the issue, citing generational and technological shifts that he can’t hope to keep up with. Leno will be 64 when he departs “Tonight” for the second time. Carson was 66 when he retired. It all makes a certain sense -- except, of course, for the fact that Leno’s departure from “Tonight” wasn’t his decision.