It's not a good sign for your experiment in reshaping the face of network programming when the experiment's centerpiece muses aloud that, yeah, maybe things were better the way they were before.
In the killing fields of NBC chatland, what little peace and stability had been achieved was just been blown to smithereens by a little hint dropped by Jay Leno, that, oh yes, now that you mention it, he'd be willing to take his old slot back.
Pity poor Conan O'Brien; his ratings are off 47 percent from Jay's, competing not just against Leno's legacy but Letterman's ongoing scandal. And then his lead-off batter, in a Q&A with Broadcasting and Cable, drops this:
If someone [from new ownership] comes in tomorrow and puts you back at 11:35, are you thrilled?
Oh, I don't know. Are you married? Whatever you want, honey.
You know I don't believe a word you are saying, right?
I'm not having a bad time at 10 o'clock now. I look at this as a job, and now I'm faced with a challenge, and it's a challenge I find difficult but interesting. I find that when I go to Vegas, whereas before I might not sell out, all of a sudden it's sold out. I seem to be doing better in terms of public appearances. I am reaching a wider audience. Whether that translates to television just yet, I don't know. But I see a difference.
Now why is that, because I'm in the paper every day? I don't know. Because I'm on earlier? I'm actually doing well; this is almost the best year for personal appearances since I started. So there is no negativity there.
Do you want to go back to 11:35?
If it were offered to me, would I take it? If that's what they wanted to do, sure. That would be fine if they wanted to.
If you are Conan O'Brien reading the above, it might occur to you that that 11:30 slot to which Jay is graciously willing to return is the one that you currently occupy.
Elsewhere in the interview, Jay shows himself to be startingly self-aware of the differences between himself and Letterman, and delivering a sort of triple backhanded compliment, saying of Dave's current scandal:
He's not being a hypocrite; Dave has never set himself up as [a model citizen]. If it were me, it would kill me. I'm the guy who's been married 29 years. But Dave has never pretended to be Mr. Moral America, he's never set himself up that way. He's not a hypocrite. I don't know how it will be viewed. He doesn't do corporate days like me, he's not as advertiser-friendly as I am. I'm the guy when Coke or Pepsi is here, I come down and shake hands and take pictures, but he doesn't do that. I don't think it will have a big effect at all.
All this occurs as the backdrop to the ratings horror show of the Leno experiment. The moment we would see the genius of the whole plan, NBC had promised, was when the other networks dramatic shows went into reruns, and there would be low-cost Jay with fresh shows to come in and clean up. Well, last week Jay had his first head-to-head against reruns and the results were not pretty. Leno actually hit his lowest number yet against a CSI: Miami repeat.
So just to sum up the Ben Silverman legacy: NBC has decimated one of its three prime-time hours, its affiliates news shows are sinking, its late night line-up is staggering along at half the viewership of a year ago, and now its 11:30 host must once again watch his back against his network teammate.
The one thing that can be said in this whole arrangement's favor is that NBC getting out of the drama business is probably a great thing for NBC and, certainly a great thing for America. It may not be a law of nature that the big networks are incapable of launching decent dramas, but it certainly looks that way at the moment, and extra-certainly does so for NBC which just surrendered the acclaimed Southland to basic cable. Until the network figures out a way to produce shows that seem to have been created in the same space-time continuum as the HBO shows, Mad Men, Damages and even Lost or 24, it is probably better for everyone that they just sit out a few games.