Jay Leno’s 10/9pm show had horrible ratings. As a Leno anti-fan, it gives me pleasure to type that. It gives me no real pleasure or displeasure to type the next line, though: Conan’s ratings were also pretty bad. And then a funny thing happened (the funniness sure wasn’t in Leno’s show): both shows experienced ratings spikes when cancelled because of the public airing of all the dirty laundry.
I pose that if we want to understand what went wrong with the Jay Leno Show and what NBC might learn from it, we shouldn’t just ask what Leno’s failure says – we should also ask what the combination of the failure and the momentary ratings spike says.
As Amanda Lotz has already pointed out here at Antenna, at least we could say that NBC tried something. But that something showed itself incapable of beating even poor and poorly advertised new shows that have since been cancelled and forgotten. Jeffrey Jones also noted here at Antenna that NBC just didn’t get the art of programming different dayparts.
What interests me, though, is how many people decided to watch Leno or O’Brien or Letterman or Kimmel when it finally seemed to matter. There was an event, and with it, a reason to watch. And events have done well this year – V is really quite bad indeed, and yet it premiered to great numbers. AMC’s The Prisoner notched a fairly admirable sized audience. Millions will watch an event on Feb 7 when the Colts battle the Saints, even though many won’t care about football. Jersey Shore seems to have been an event, too, as all manner of reality shows have continued to do well by being events with yet more events (tribal council, the merger, Hollywood week, the trip to Japan, etc.) built into them.
I’m not sure how much I believe this next idea, but I’m trying it on for size, so tell me if I should put it back on the rack: perhaps we’ve reached a point of televisual ubiquity and of the medium’s general “wallpaperness,” that many viewers yearn for and/or need some kind of external reason to tune in. Sure, a lot of shows are still getting great audiences, so the day of reckoning is hardly upon series television, nor do I believe it’s coming. But if NBC wants to shake things up a bit, how about some more events (other than the Olympics)? How about the British system of shorter shows? Greenlight small projects, and if some do very well, sure, make ‘em into longer series. But otherwise, become the channel with new stuff, the channel that’s got a new show on tonight (did you hear about it?), not yet another rerun of a tired procedural that nobody really cares that much about anyways, or night 5648 of Jay’s late night reign of terror.
Maybe it’s an awful idea. But it’s certainly no worse than the idea of giving Jay Leno a third of prime time.