Don Quixote’s Though for the Day: JJ on Leno

You might want to check out JJ’s comment on yesterday’s “Thought.”  It a rare glimpse at the working of network television from an insider (and thanks, JJ, for taking the time to share it). 

Having said that, in my completely uninformed outsider way, I think there is a place in prime time at least for a variety show.  The public has certainly shown an insatiable appetite for variety shows cloaked as competitions (Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Got Talent, Dancing with the Stars, Last Comic Standing, Nashville Star, the two Rockstars, the show to pick the leads for Grease on Broadway, etc., etc.)  It seems like there has to be a way to translate this into a prime time variety show with an appealing host/hostess.  Yet JJ’s quite right that the best minds in all of network television have failed to come up with a winning variety formula (aside from the competitions) for quite a few years now.  It’s mystifying.

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  • MacG

    Carol Burnett rocked it and I think she was the last to really do so.  What a new team look like?  Of course the studios have gotten used to low budget “reality” shows so the Bob Mackie of this new team would have to shop at Target.

  • Ymarsakar
    If you want to learn about sunspots, go there.


    It’s not the format, it’s the audience. The audience that watched Jimmy Durante, Jackie Gleason, Ed Sullivan aged and became the audience that watched the Carol, Dean, etc. who became the audience that watches their alter egos in the list of shows you provided. Add to the equation the addition of cable television and the market share of any program is diminished. Call it designer programming born in the age of designer jeans.
    I can only think of one program (no longer watched by me) that has stayed the course – SNL. Of course, it has changed to project the tastes in humor and music of  its young viewers.
    The same thing can be said for film. The hue and cry of my generation is that they don’t make films for adults.  All one needs to do is look at a list of the most popular films: The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind to Bridge on the River Kwai and you see that the same quality that have made and kept them as classics are the very same quality that was poured into the Carol Burnett Show.
    Fast food, fast money and the  self absorbed Me Generation who have grown up and fed the demand for cheap imports are clueless about quality sat in front of the tube and watched Jerry Springer.

  • jj

    Don – have they showed an insatiable appetite for variety shows, or have they showed an insatiable appetite for competitions between amateurs who are just like them?
    From the production side of the street, shows like Idol, et al are great.  The talent (I use the term advisedly) is free, and all your other costs are minimal-to-zero: they’re promos.  (The airline that flies them to Hollywood, the hotel in which they stay, the theater in which the show is done, the band who provides the live music – that’s all “promotional consideration” stuff.  Which is why the announcer and What’s-his-face tells you the name of the theater seventeen times in the course of an episode, and why there are three mentions and two commercials for the airline, etc.  Doing the show costs whatever it costs to pay the English guy, the other What’s-his-face.  That’s their only expense.)
    And, Idol’s biggest audience (I don’t watch, but I am still plugged into the numbers) last season was 36 million.  Nielsen’s base number is that there are in this country 286 million potential viewers.  (A potential viewer is anyone over the age of two.)  So Idol, on its best night, got 12%.  That’s a sample of “insatiable appetite” for this stuff?  That’s a “hit?”
    However, as Sadie points out: yeah it is, these days.  The audience has become so fragmented, thanks to cable, that numbers that once caused us to routinely pull the plug on a show are now acceptable.  The only thing that gets similar or better numbers are special events, like the super bowl.  That’s a once-a-year deal.  Ed Sullivan used to get 55-60 million people every Sunday night, from a smaller audience base.  Which is why he also got the biggest talent in the world for scale,and why even the Rollings Stones would change the lyrics to suit S & P: as Keith Richard said at the time, 59 million people.
    Interesting diversion into cable for a paragraph or two, too.  You may not remember, (or more likely never knew), that when cable first came along, there were some rules.  One rule was that because they were set up to charge for the hook-up, they weren’t supposed to charge for air time, i.e. no commercials.  But, cable argued to the FCC that it was going to cost a fortune to wire the country – quite true – so since they were faced with such enormous start-up costs, so they needed some help.  Okay, says the FCC, you may – temporarily – sell commercials to offset those costs.  (The broadcast networks said, “hey!” – and the FCC said: “we said temporarily!  To help defray getting the country wired is all!  Don’t worry about it, you can’t do both,we won’t let them.”)  And the other thing they gave them was freedom from competition.  Most of you probably only have one cable provider in your town.  That’s because when it all started, providers would put in bids to your town boards (or councils, or whatever) and whoever won the bid got an exclusive contract with the town.   If Cablevision got the rights to your town, then they wired it, and they owned it: you have Cablevision if you have cable – period.  Again, to defray wiring costs.
    Meanwhile, rather like the temporary emergency war-time measure of withholding taxes to maintain a cash-flow to pay for WW II, which has been over for 65 years – the country has been wired for cable for 30 years, and cable’s still selling commercials.  AND sending you a monthly bill for your hook-up.  Broadcast TV has one revenue stream: commercials.  Cable charges you, and has commercials.  Apparently you can do both.
    So the audience is, back to Sadie’s point, very fragmented.  If you think back to NBC in the mid-80s, we had the same precise situation at NBC then as now.  The schedule was a mess (or a joke, take your pick) with one exception: Tonight.  There were years there when Carson produced 20% of NBC’s annual revenue all by himself.  (And I have to confess, none of us were ever imaginative enough to consider  moving him, for God’s sweet sake!)  He was our lynchpin, our bright spot, our winner – and we built everything else around him.  He was the anchor.  He won his time-slot effortlessly, and our entire schedule ended up being lead-ins to him.
    You take what’s working, and use that to build on.  You don’t take what’s working and gamble witlessly with it.  You really don’t.  You really, really don’t.
    Leno was, in Dennis Miller’s words: “printing money over there” – just as Carson was.  Letterman hasn’t finished within a million and half viewers of Leno in this decade.  Leno routinely gets between 5 and 6 million viewers; Letterman pulls about 4; and Conan’s immediate family has been watching him – that’s about it.  (About 2 million.)  The part of all this that I find perhaps most interesting about all of this is not that Zucker tried to fix what wasn’t broken, but he did it on behalf of Conan, who has never proven anything in the real world.  (12:30 to 1:30 AM is not the real world.  Your audience is drunks, insomniacs, criminals, and bored emergency-room personnel.  Even the bars are watching ESPN re-runs of the day’s games.)  I can’t watch Conan, personally, he makes my teeth itch.  He looks so damned uncomfortable out there, and so far out of his depth, and, so far from being a seasoned performer he has the mannerisms of someone who started doing stand-up about two weeks ago.  (Stop saying “yeah” every damn time you unleash what you think is a funny line!  My GOD!!!)
    Anyway, Leno has taken his audience with him to 10:00, he’s pulling between 5 and 6 million just like did when he was on Tonight.  (Got the numbers for the week of 12/21 – 12/27 – the week after the ones I gave you last time.  Nielsen rated 11 shows, Leno’s Monday show came in #22 with 5.81 million viewers; his Tuesday show was #31 with 5.18; his Wednesday show was #41 with 4.59.)  His Monday show did better in its time-slot, got more total viewers than Modern Family (ABC); House (Fox); Law & Order (NBC); Castle (ABC); Medium (CBS); Cougar Town (God Help Us); and a whole bunch of other shows that everything thinks are doing just fine.  Now, those are raw numbers, none of them are head to head.  (Did he beat Cougar Town which is on opposite him on whatever the hell night it’s on?  Dunno.  Haven’t spent the time to do a grid.)
    So Zucker’s probably not kidding when he says the show was doing fine for him and the network – but not the affiliates.  Could be.  But Zucker only moved him because (a) his show is very cheap compared to an hour episodic, and (b) he was worried Conan might go to another network if he didn’t promise him Tonight.  God knows why – as I said, I find Conan unwatchable and cannot imagine what other network this is champing at the bit to get him.  But NBC (or GE) did this to themselves, too.  There used to be a thing called an Affiliate Relations department.  Those were the people who knew the station owners, worked with them, were trusted by them, did deals with them, and could have asked for some patience from them to let Leno develop an audience at 10:00.  GE decided in 1993 NBC didn’t need Affiliate Relations, so they eliminated the entire department.  )Maybe there is such a thing as karma.  It took a while for that to come around and bite them in the ass, but the universe usually straightens these things out.)
    Incidentally, if you’re wondering, Carson used to pull 20 million every night, as a cume.  (A “cume” is a cumulative, which means it includes samplers – people “sample” shows.)  The first segment of Carson would have the 20 million, then it would fall off in the second segment, and level off after midnight.  This is because everybody watched the monologue, but a couple of million turned the TV and lights off and went to sleep when it was over.  Leno, kicking Letterman’s bony ass every night, was getting numbers that we’d have routinely canceled the show for 25 years ago, but there’s that fragmented audience again.  5 million is a good prime time number, these days.  And Leno will take his audience back to Tonight, and resume kicking Letterman around the block again.
    But – variety in prime?  Nope.  The big stars did it for Sullivan – bit mostly for the 50-60 million person audience.  They did it for Carson, and his 12 – 20 million.  They won’t show up, unless well compensated, and TV only has two ways to compensate: we can put you in front of a hell of a lot of people, or we can pay you a hell of a lot of money.  The hell of a lot of people aren’t there any more, and the numbers won’t justify the costs.  The Idol contestants are free, and that’s great, and fun.  But if you could find a modern-day equivalent to Carol Burnett, Dean Martin, Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, God couldn’t afford to pay them.  And if you could find the caliber of guests they routinely got, (which you can’t, there aren’t people like Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Bing Crosby etc. any more – our “stars” today really don’t twinkle very brightly) the audience isn’t there, so your only inducement to get them on is money, too.  Can’t do it.


    “I can’t watch Conan, personally, he makes my teeth itch”
    That explains why I run towards the bathroom at his time slot  for my electric toothbrush.

  • Mike Devx

    I just want to say, based on jj’s #4 post as an example, how much I love visiting Book’s realm here, reading her eclectic, thoughtful posts, and then the commentary, by other thoughtful-minded folks…  It’s one of the bright spots in every day.

  • jj

    Dopey typo there in graf 10 – Nielsen rated 111 shows in the week 12/21 – 12/27 – not 11.  Sorry.

  • Charles Martel

    Mike, I agree. jj’s post is one of the most interesting ones I’ve ever read on this site, and that’s saying a lot.

    jj, way to go. Thanks for taking the time to give us a fascinating insider’s insights.

  • Don Quixote

    Thanks again, JJ.  But, I still wonder.  As you point out, Leno got reasonably good ratings with a painfully awful show.  Why wouldn’t a well-done show get at least somewhat better ratings and thrive?

    Big stars will show up when they have something to plug, which is all the time.  Well, enough of them will to make a much better show than Leno has done.