From today's OpinionJournal.com (courtesy of Joe Queenan):
"NBC Will Regret Appeasing Leno; Conan was the Czechoslovakia of late-night"
Of course, Mr. Queenan is a satirist by trade, so we'll assume that his comparison of NBC's recent programming debacle to the appeasement of Adolf Hitler is an attempt at humor. We emphasize the word "attempt." Judge for yourself:
Jay Leno, much like Adolf Hitler, is a master of making secret demands for foreign territory and then acting like the wronged party. First he pretended that he wanted to annex only the first half-hour of Mr. O'Brien's "Tonight Show." Here he was mimicking Hitler, who insisted that he merely wanted to annex the German-speaking Sudetenland, not all of Czechoslovakia.
Then, adopting the craven British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as a role model, NBC stabbed Mr. O'Brien in the back by agreeing to let Mr. Leno reoccupy the first segment of his old "Tonight Show" slot. NBC's defense was that Mr. O'Brien had dismal ratings, and the show was a bit of a mess. But the same can be said about Czechoslovakia, a hodgepodge cobbled together after the First World War that never really got its act together.
Here's where the parallels become even more eerie. In acquiescing to Mr. Leno's sotto voce demands to annex one-half of "The Tonight Show," NBC thought it could put the whole ugly controversy to rest. Wrong. Interpreting generosity as weakness, Mr. Leno began to maneuver for complete control of "The Tonight Show." Here he was again taking his cue from der Fuhrer, manipulating his outgunned adversary into a position so humiliating he literally had no choice but to surrender. Just as Edward Beneš, president of Czechoslovakia, was forced to abandon ship once he had been betrayed by his erstwhile allies, Mr. O'Brien was forced to abdicate and cede his entire one-hour program to the man he had replaced. He did get a significantly bigger going-away present than Beneš, however.
According to Mr. Queenan, Leno (like der Fuhrer) will never be satisfied with just the Tonight Show. Pretty soon, he'll be goose-stepping his way into Jimmy Fallon's slot and (if you take that comparison a step further) Carson Daly should be on watch as well.
Satire works best when it contains an element of truth, or it offers a comparison that the audience can easily grasp. On both accounts, Queenan's effort comes up short, although we do give him credit for slipping such an unfunny op-ed past the editors at the WSJ--and getting paid for it. Memo to Paul Gigot and Daniel Henninger: if you'd like a companion piece comparing NBC's late night catastrophe to such knee-slappers as Mao's Cultural Revolution or Stalin's liquidation of the Kulaks, let us know.
But we digress. Truth is, even the satirists are getting the narrative wrong. Jay Leno's return to the Tonight Show has nothing to do with annexing time slots, or making NBC's Jeff Zucker look like Neville Chamberlain. As we've explained in previous posts, the network's programming chiefs, led by Mr. Zucker, set the stage for this debacle back in 2004.
Worried that Conan O'Brien would jump ship, they arranged for Mr. Leno to retire from the Tonight Show in 2009, promising his job to Mr. O'Brien. When Leno began making noises about his future plans, NBC gave him the 10-11 pm times lot, five nights a week. To no one's real surprise, Leno bombed at 10 pm, an hour populated by crime dramas. But more distressingly (at least from the network's perspective), O'Brien tanked at 11:30. Seven months into his reign, the Tonight Show is in second place behind David Letterman, having lost more than 2 million viewers a night.
That was simply unacceptable to NBC. For more than 50 years, Tonight has been the most profitable franchise in broadcasting, generating billions of dollars in profit over that period. And, with the network's prime time line-up in serious trouble, the Tonight Show is more important than ever to NBC's bottom line.
The network's choice was painfully obvious. They could cancel Leno's 10 p.m. show and hope that O'Brien eventually found his footing at 11:35 (realizing that Leno would migrate to another network, with a new show competing against Tonight). Or they could offer up a compromise, moving Leno back to 11:35 for a half-hour show, followed by Conan and Tonight at 12:05. Despite their collective stupidity, the suits obviously realized that the compromise would be unacceptable to one of the hosts, and sure enough, Conan decided to walk, collecting an estimated $32 million in severance pay.
That, in turn, clears the way for Jay Leno to return as host of the Tonight Show. No Nazi subterfuge; no appeasers wearing frock coats in the executive suite. Instead, NBC's late night hash was the product of incompetent schlubs (masquerading as network programmers) who made terrible decisions, then compounded the problem when they tried to fix it.
If you have a child who is not particularly gifted or even a bit slow, consider steering them towards a broadcast management program at your local college or university. For screwing up NBC, Harvard graduate Jeff Zucker was recently given a new, multi-year contract. These days, failure pays extremely well. Just ask Mr. Zucker. Or Mr. O'Brien. Or Bob Nardelli (who ran both Home Depot and Chrysler into the ground).
Or Barack Obama in 2013.