Well, that's over.
Conan is in reruns: Leno's 10 o'clock show is going to wrap up soon, and he'll show up at 11:35 after the Winter Olympics is over.
I have to agree with the minority opinion, held by Mark Cuban and a few others: as a strategy, NBC's move to shift up all their talk shows and keep all their talent actually wasn't a bad idea. It was a bold stroke that got a lot of attention. At the time it was happening, though, it seemed a lot like suicide. Who the hell would watch a talk show at 10?
It all fell apart rather quickly, as everyone predicted. But this had nothing to do with Leno being too bland or out-of-place in prime-time or anything like that. The problem, I think, was two-fold:
1. The shows never developed. If you're going to change hosts and enter new programming slots, the shows have to have something fresh about them. Leno at 10 was Leno at 11:35 without a desk, nothing more. Conan at 11:35 was Conan at 12:35-- in LA rather than New York, but essentially identical. The bet NBC was making is the personalities of the hosts would make all the difference, and we now know how that bet paid off.
I'm not going to surmise what sort of changes needed to be made, but I have a few examples. Maybe Conan should have ditched all of his old bits and characters (except the "Year 2000" bit, which is gold) and made a big deal of starting from scratch: that way, his new audience would feel they truly owned the show. Maybe Leno should have done something like took the show on the road (which worked really well for Letterman over the years) rather than pace around in his narrow, mall-storefront set. All things considered, it still ain't too late.
2. The Big Audience is gone, and no amount of talk-show-host shuffling will bring them back. The relative success of the pre-shuffle late-night lineup had a lot to do with the fact they could always be found in the same place, every night. Everything else changed-- Cable shows bled off audience, and the internet chopped up the good bits for direct viewing. The mere fact they moved all the pieces doomed the entire experiment.
NBC's late light slate reminded me of what they call in the vintage car trade a "Garage Find:" an old vehicle, found after years of neglect, to still be in perfect running condition. It worked great, you could drive it anyplace, but it was held together with rust. You don't dare take it apart, for fear it would never start again. And sure, you could rebuild it, but why bother when there are so many other good cars available elsewhere?
Alright, it's a shaky metaphor, but I think Jay Leno would appreciate it.