Same difference!

Television Show

Same difference!


“That chin! That chin! That fabulous chin! It starts in Burbank and reaches Berlin! You oughta put some wheels on it and take it for a spin! That chin! That chin! That chin!”
— Billy Crystal, singing about the salient virtues of his host Jay Leno, during the final week of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.

Five years ago, NBC initiated a succession plan for The Tonight Show that required its host Jay Leno to hand over the reigns of his late night talk show to fellow comedian Conan O’Brein. Last week, 17 years into Leno’s popular run, the ordained power transfer was officially put into effect.

The worldwide media (and, not very far behind, the increasingly whimsical Indian press), ever bereft of reasonable space-fillers, has grown shrilly eulogic about Leno over the past fortnight, unanimously adopting the term ‘end of an era’ as its rallying slogan.

Leno himself didn’t seem overly perturbed about the transition, with good reason (which we will soon examine). “Some people ask if I’m sad handing the show over,” said Leno, during the concluding portion of his last Tonight Show. “No, honestly, I’m very happy.
When I took over from Johnny (Carson), this show was the number one show on late night television. Now, when I’m handing it to Conan, it’s still number one, which means I get my security deposit back.”

The 11:30 slot has traditionally been a contentious segment for American talk shows. When Johnny Carson quit as host of The Tonight Show in 1992, he was doing so having defeated in bloody battle the likes of Jerry Lewis, Joan Rivers, Geraldo Rivera and David Frost, all legends in their own right. Carson’s succession by his long-time substitute host Jay Leno was no summer breeze either, involving the bitter departure of David Letterman — widely considered the ideal replacement for Carson at the time, including by Carson himself — from the NBC stable and over to that of rival network CBS.
Letterman went on to host the The Late Show for CBS, which dominated ratings at the top slot for the next three years.

Only, that is, until Leno suddenly pulled off a major coup: he managed to procure an interview with Hugh Grant in 1995, soon after Grant was caught picking up a Hollywood prostitute named Divine Brown without first peeking over his shoulder. While other talk show hosts ran circles around Grant’s gaucherie, Leno looked the British star in the eye and shot off straight: “What were you thinking?!” The Tonight Show With Jay Leno has been consistently on top of the ratings chart for the 11:30 slot since the event (thereby demonstrating the financial merits of America’s peewee attention span).

Ratings, of course, is the centrifugal point of this little whirlwind. That Conan is inheriting The Tonight Show from Leno  doesn’t detract from the fact that Leno is still very much on the NBC rolls. Somewhere along the way, NBC and Leno seem to have simultaneously pondered on and reconsidered the business efficiency of Leno’s retirement, resulting in the announcement of a new primetime talk show, starting September this year, tentatively titled The Jay Leno Show. This new show will use a very mildly altered format and studio set from that of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, while continuing to incorporate several of Leno’s popular Tonight Show bits like ‘Jaywalking’ and ‘Headlines’.
The main difference being that Leno will now come on at 10 pm instead of 11:30, effectively pitting the new Jay Leno Show against serious features such as CSI and Law & Order SVU. This is potentially of great advantage to NBC, slotting a talk show among dramas, because of the kind of returns they stand to make, banking on Leno’s popularity, off a relatively fractional investment — a drama costs upward of $3 million to produce, while a talk show can be wrapped up under $300,000. What the decision adds up to, for the viewer, is just a tiny amendment to their TV schedules. And not everyone sees the point of it. One commenter on The Gawker, a celebrity gossip site, opines that “[Leno] will be remembered as the guy who sc**wed up 10 O’Clock. That will be his legacy.” Conveniently for NBC, Leno’s retirement from The Tonight Show, combined with all the press coverage the move has generated, has doubled as a brilliant PR vehicle for the network’s otherwise unweildy Jay Leno Show gimmick. As for Leno himself, he’ll get to experiment with a different format, continue earning an average of $30 million a year, and crack a bunch of jokes in the bargain. Winners, all.

Where does the Indian viewer fit into all this, then? The Tonight Show, in America, caters to the working stiff and the pensioner who want a bit of mindless entertainment before they hit the hay. Here in India, not only is the show only aired on Zee Cafe a day after it hits American homes, viewer tastes and competing entertainment on other channels are completely at odds with the show's original target demographic. Come September, if the channel decides to broadcast The Jay Leno Show in addition to Conan’s Tonight Show, it’ll be like nothing’s changed at all. So what’s the fuss all about? Not much.

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