"Late Night TV War is a Downer"
January 22nd, 2010
In the early 1940's, the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were
tops at the box office for one simple reason. America was at war with a very
scary man, and laughter was the right medicine for taking our minds off of
Some years ago I interviewed Don Bellisario for my "TV Creators" books.
Don, who created such hit shows as Magnum PI, JAG and NCIS, was just a young
boy in 1941, and recalled what happened the day his parents heard about
Pearl Harbor on the radio. Don's father asked his Mom,"What are we going to
do?". Don's stoic Mother replied,"We're going to the movies like we always do
In the decades which followed, millions of Americans have come to rely
upon late night television talk shows to take their minds off of their
prevailing troubles in much the same way as they did on movies during World War
II. 11:30pm programs have always been a safe haven for us, giving us an
opportunity to temporarily forget about the foreclosure notices, the car repos,
medical bills, or our lack of employment. It allowed us to laugh, relax,
and then nod off to sleep. That is, until last week, when NBC threatened to
disrupt our safe haven.
Having failed to draw an audience for his new 10pm program, Jay Leno was
rewarded with his old time slot, but only for a half-hour (11:35pm to
The plan called for Conan O'Brien to follow Jay and continue as host of
The Tonight Show. Conan refused for a number of reasons. First of all, you
can't call a show "Tonight" if it starts in the morning. Second, he had
worked his entire career to snag the coveted 11:30pm time slot and wasn't
willing to settle for something less just six months after he took the job. And
third, Conan respected the tradition of The Tonight Show, and wouldn't be
a party to dismantling it.
The buck-stopping architect of this mess is NBC chief Jeff Zucker, an
arrogant young man whose only claim to fame was having produced the Today
show when Matt and Katie were clicking on all cylinders. Instead of giving him
a raise, GE gave Zucker NBC, which he has systematically taken from first
to last place.
Zucker is not a well-liked man. A friend of mine who worked on Crossing
Jordan told me that Zucker had a thing for Jordan star Jill Hennessy, and
once called the producer to demand that an upcoming scene be written in
such as way as to require Hennessey to be filmed in her underwear. Zucker is
also despised by those who were displaced from their jobs when Leno was
first given the 10pm slot five nights a week. An average TV drama
production team consists of as many as 200 people, so over a thousand families were
affected. Who knows, maybe Zucker dropped all of the dramas simply because
he ran out of people who were willing to parade around half-naked. No
matter, because the entire network is now in a state of undress (I mean
duress), and its emperor doesn't seem to know he's exposed.
In one sense, I could care less about Zucker, Leno, or O'Brien. I've been
in Letterman's camp for over twenty years because he's funnier than Leno,
and he's the only late night guy who can conduct some semblance of an
interview. But even those of us who aren't fans of Leno and NBC should still be
offended by the peacock debacle. That's because Zucker's demolition of primetime
dramas had the effect of a greedy corporation shutting down five of
its largest plants.
Moreover, the ripple effect of Zucker's boneheaded move cost local TV
stations revenue, which in turn triggered lay-offs. Culturally speaking, NBC
also deprived us of some great storytelling that used to occur with 10pm
dramas. And worst of all, his latest shake-up has disrupted our safe haven of
comedy and turned it into a battleground. The last thing any of us needed in
these tough economic times is to be shortchanged of light-hearted
diversion, and instead treated to corporate greed and incompetence. It's enough to
keep you awake at night, but we could have accomplished that without any
help from NBC.
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