Filling the Leno-shaped hole

NBC scrambles to fill its primetime vacancy with pricey designer names. Can the network possibly succeed?

Heather Havrilesky
January 12, 2010 1:58AM (UTC)

So, your idiot boss is torturing you again? Well, now you know you're not alone: Jay Leno's employers may be the most hapless, carelessly cruel managers on the planet – at least for the moment.

NBC just pulled the plug on Leno's new show, but they can't tell us where Leno -- or Conan O'Brien, or Jimmy Fallon -- will land. A fitting insult to add to the repeated injuries inflicted by NBC over the past year, starting with expecting Leno to create a primetime talk show that audiences will want to watch five hours a week, then undercutting his (really bad) show by alternately overhyping it and referring to it as a cost-cutting measure. Now, after months of bragging that Leno's ratings could sag and they'd still save money, after months of repeating their intention to stand behind Leno's crappy show, they pull the rug out from under him.


But Leno can't be the only one who's humiliated – no, that wouldn't be nearly messy enough. Let's throw in Conan O'Brien, so NBC can alienate a man they've already invested a huge amount of time and money in. Let's make Jimmy Fallon look like a sucker for potentially getting shafted with a 1 a.m. time slot, too. And let's keep the whole plan up in the air long enough that everyone can feel embarrassed and pissed off and insecure, then announce our new line-up with our usual tone-deaf grandiosity.

OK, that last part hasn't happened yet, but it's only a matter of time. See, your demeaning, thankless job isn't so bad after all. At least you don't work for NBC.

So what's next? Conan O'Brien decides if he can handle the (possible) humiliation, Leno is (possibly) given another half-hour slot to fill with comedic stylings that even your Aunt Shirley finds slightly stodgy and out of step with the times, and Jimmy Fallon weighs the costs and benefits of creating television for insomniacs and speed freaks.


Oh yeah, and NBC comes up with a whopping five hours of brand new primetime television to fill Leno's vacant 10 p.m. slot. Yes, the network that loudly proclaimed its intention to rely less on costly pilots is now in the market for a massive swath of new shows. And who are they turning to for these shows? A lot of proven (if slightly dusty) talents: David E. Kelley ("Ally McBeal," "The Practice") has "an utterly unconventional" lawyer drama called "Kindreds" to offer, Jerry Bruckheimer ("CSI" among many, many other things) has an action procedural called "Chase," Cindy Chupack ("Sex and the City") has a romantic comedy called "Love Bites" (since the titles "Chase" and "Kindreds" were already taken), and "House MD" creator David Shore and "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams are also working on new material.

Hmmm. Bruckheimer, Kelley, Abrams, Shore, Chupack? Yeah, I'm sure those guys work for cheap.

In the short term, NBC is looking to the 2010 Winter Olympics to fill its 10 p.m. time-slot nightmare. At least that part of their line-up is a real cost-saver. After all, they only paid $820 million for the rights to televise the event (that's a real steal, only about $200 million more than they paid for the 2006 Winter Olympics). Not surprisingly, NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol says that the network expects to lose money on their broadcast from Vancouver.


As much of a mess as NBC has made, though, their giant flameout certainly underscores how difficult it is to run one of the big networks in this age of DVRs, online content, waxing costs and waning attention spans. Far easier to be a smaller cable channel, where costs are lower and lower ratings are required to be considered a success. If NBC's development staff could look for quirky, smart material instead of massive Bruckheimerian hits, their jobs would be a lot less taxing. Then maybe then they wouldn't look quite so reckless and confused to the rest of us.

And before we proclaim NBC an abject failure and disgrace, listen to this: After the Olympics are over, NBC will premiere a Jerry Seinfeld-produced (more bargain-basement programming!) comedy-reality show called "The Marriage Ref," in which a referee (comedian Tom Papa) and a bunch of panelists (including – get this -- Larry David, Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey and Charles Barkley) help to resolve marital disputes. Hold on a minute, there: Married people argue, and then Charles Barkley holds forth on what's wrong with them? Somebody pinch me. Now there is a show I would watch 5 hours a week. I would watch that show for hours and hours on end, like one of those rats who forgets to eat but keeps pushing the lever to get more and more cocaine until it dies.


In fact, why not throw in Jay Leno as another “Marriage Ref” panelist, let Conan and Fallon keep their time slots, and voila! Problem solved.

At least for the moment. 

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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