How did Jay Leno become the most punk rock upstart revolutionary force in media today? Across the spectrum, the entertainment world has lined-up arm-in-arm, salivating at the prospect of disaster when his new show debuts tonight.
In their decision to cancel an hour of primetime with another talk show, NBC has taken a wrecking ball to one of the last pillars of old media. From Network Presidents in the iron towers, to alternative comedians at open mikes in coffee houses - everyone, everyone wants Jay Leno to fail. And around the web, the press has welcomed Leno's bow tonight with all the warmth and ceremony of the nightshift at Abu Ghraib. In a media accustomed to writing glowing portraits every time a new temp comes to work with Ugly Betty, Jay is being met with stone faces all around the picnic.
For a man who made his way as the safest, middle-of-the-roadiest of entertainers since Bob Hope's late period, to suddenly find himself a public outlaw, must be a strange fate. Although the NY Times paints a picture of a man who despite a more or less meteoric rise to replacing Johnny Carson the last true king of media, has nonetheless been treated like dirt all his life, including being advised by a high school guidance counselor to consider dropping out.
The fight against Leno, for network TV partisans, has the look of a desperate final attempt at a breakout - a Battle of the Bulge - one last chance to show your might in a war whose fate has already been decided; a fight that even if they win it, still leaves the networks mortally wounded and with fewer and fewer roads to safety, or as the LA Times' Scott Collins gently put it, if Jay fails they are then let, "to flail about in search of a viable new business model."
Among the foes Leno faces when he takes to the airwaves at ten o'clock tonight:
• TV producers, writers, actors, grips, agents - everyone who takes a piece of the bloated production budgets a primetime drama throws off.
• Affiliate stations. NBC claims its okay with lower ratings than they might get from a drama because the cost of producing Leno will be so much cheaper. But that potentially leaves affiliates holding the bag as the ten o'clock hour provides the lead-in for their wholly owned local news shows.
• Every other late night host, who will have to compete for guests against a show in a far more desirable slot.
• Network executives, who make their careers on their show-picking prowess, script notes and the general meddling that the extended dramatic TV production process leaves room for, have much less to fiddle with on a talk show.
• Cool people, for whom Leno has always represented old, stody and predicable versus the edgier Conan, Kimmel or all time cool people's icon David Letterman.
In fact, the only people who stand to gain from Leno's bow are TV audiences.
You could say that if all you did was eliminate an hour of primetime network dramas and replace them with nothing, that would alone be a net gain.
If one looks at the big three's 10 pm schedules for the fall, at the alternatives to Leno, suddenly nightly installments of Jaywalking and Jay reads the wacky headlines doesn't look all that awful.
Here is the complete list of the new shows airing against Leno:
• Castle, about a mystery writer who finds a serial killer is re-enacting murders from his books (wasn't that the plot of Basic Instinct).
• The Forgotten: Another Jerry Bruckheimer cop show, this one starring Christian Slater as a man whose daughter has been abducted who hunts for other people's abducted children.
• The Good Wife: A lawyer must go back to work and returns to the courtroom after her politician husband is imprisoned.
• Eastwick: A perennially super idea: adapt The Witches of Eastwick..
• Private Practice: A Gray's Anatomy Spin-off.
When you think about it, what was the last time the networks launched a decent drama? Or even a hit one that wasn't a CSI or a NCIS? It's been a while since Desperate Housewivess and Lost came around. Fox and CW still manages to churn out some surprises like Glee and 90210. But in general, the big threes process simply exists to screw up shows that might have been gripping intense dramas had they appeared on HBO, AMC or FX.
Without Leno, that list above might have been two or three shows longer. And so for that alone, America owes him thanks. As Leno himself put it, if his show doesn't work, NBC will just have to "go back to Lipstick Jungle."