After much speculation and rumor, NBC finally cancelled The Jay Leno Show, the primetime experiment that nearly killed the network if we believe a lot of the pundits. Now the next phase in the guess-and-wait game is upon us: Will Jay return to his old timeslot? What will happen to Conan O'Brien? Who will get the venerable Tonight Show brand? How will this impact Jimmy Fallon's show later in the evening? Will anyone jump ship to another network?
I remember all the behind-the-scenes drama when Johnny Carson stepped down from his throne as talk show king and Jay Leno and David Letterman both vied to be the Tonight Show heir. The book The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night by Bill Carter has all the dirt. (There was even a cheesy movie version.) I'm sure another book is waiting to be written on the current fiasco.
To be honest, I think NBC has mishandled this current late night crisis just as it screwed up the Carson transition. Leno and O'Brien and even Fallon should all quit and move on to other networks instead of having their reputations and careers tarnished any further. Maybe the three of them should all just team-up and put on their own joint production called The Jay, Conan, and Jimmy Show! The Big Ego Factor would never allow that to happen, of course, but I think that would get better ratings than The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with (insert new host here) and Nightline combined.
Honestly, the best thing for The Tonight Show is for Conan to leave after being disrespected and for Jay Leno never to return after his embarrassing failure in prime time. (NBC tried to spin it in some positive light, but let's all be honest and call it what it is: a complete and colossal failure.) Jimmy Fallon is great but it's too soon for him to jump into The Tonight Show -- the ratings will likely continue to slide. Other candidates that people have mentioned, like Jon Stewart or Tina Fey, should just stay where they are and not rock the boat.
NBC needs to start fresh and make a big splash, throw out its dirty baggage, and rejuvenate the long-lived talk show franchise with a new host. I'm picturing someone like Jerry Seinfeld or Eddie Murphy or Oprah Winfrey or (wait for it) David Letterman.
The new show needs to break the mold and not rely on the existing formula. Why do all the talk shows have to have an opening monologue, a live band, a static set? Shake things up! Be creative! Take some chances!
But I dream too boldly. The reality will likely be much more predictable. Jay Leno will stay with NBC at 11:35 p.m., Conan O'Brien will probably stay at NBC as host of the Tonight Show at the later start time of 12:05 a.m., and Jimmy Fallon will likely stay at NBC but pushed back to 1 a.m. Ratings for the new Jay Leno Show will probably spike up initially but I think the damage is done and viewership will eventually crumble again for all the NBC talk shows, leading to more embarrassments and then some more drastic panic moves.
Why wait for all that to happen? Take my advice and pull the triggers now, make the big moves now, turn everything on its head now.