One Way That Jay Leno Was Lucky

Just a very quick observation, a coda to the LeBrien (CoJay?) frenzy: Jay Leno has been a lucky man in a lot of ways, but one of the luckiest breaks he ever had was that the recent Late Night wars may be obliterating the story of his failure at 10 p.m. Yes, The Jay Leno Show has been atop Entertainment Weekly’s list of “TV’s Biggest Bombs” and so on. But normally when a show tanks that badly, it becomes the number-one story in TV and does serious damage to the creator’s career. But owing to a combination of factors — the high price of just cancelling Leno outright, the fact that the network was clearly having second thoughts about Conan and wanted to hit the reset button (it seems like even if Leno had turned down Tonight, O’Brien’s job would be in trouble) — the story has been much more about O’Brien than Leno. And to those who aren’t letting this story rule their lives, it might seem like O’Brien was the one who bombed, not Leno. After all, Conan’s gone, and Jay replaced him. Leno has been feeding this impression by talking to his audience as if he’s magnanimously stepping in to compensate for Conan’s failure (“if you don’t get the ratings…”).

I think that within a year, if that, the failure of The Jay Leno Show will effectively be written out of history. It will be a matter of record that the show was killing the affiliates and they threatened not to show it, forcing NBC to abandon its failed experiment; but there’s a difference between something being on the record and being generally understood. The optics of the situation look good for Leno; it really does look, from a distance, as if he was simply shifted to an earlier time slot and then shifted back again when the new guy didn’t work out. He’ll continue to give this impression, as will the network, and in the end, his participation in one of TV’s great flops will be forgotten. Look at Mark Evanier’s otherwise very good defense of Leno; it talks about his great “ratings track record” even though he no longer has an unblemished ratings track record (and even though it was never unblemished if you count the early ratings struggles of his Tonight Show). By next year, expect it to be routinely said that Leno has always gotten the numbers — all the time.

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