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Late Night 'War'--The Affiliates Killed 'Leno'...Twice

It’s been well documented that the NBC affiliates, watching their late news suffer from the so-called “Leno Effect” at this time last year, played a large part in dooming NBC’s 10 p.m. Jay Leno experiment.

Bill Carter’s new book, The War For Late Night, also posits that the powerful affiliates board, then chaired by Michael Fiorile, may have helped doom the show by having too much input in its composition.

I remember reporting on the affiliate’s board’s unprecedented input–it had commissioned a big study with Frank N. Magid to see how best to keep viewers tuned in when Leno sent it over to local news.

Leno’s longtime e.p., Debbie Vickers, thought the board’s input was a bad idea from the get-go.

“Debbie Vickers had no intention of sitting down with TV station managers–hilarious guys though they might be–to hear their ideas about how to create a comedy show,” Carter writes.  “She told Rick Ludwin, ‘You’ve got to go to these meetings. I’m not meeting with affiliates.’”

The meetings revealed that the stations wanted strong comedy at the end of the show, such as signature bits like “Headlines” and “Jaywalking.” Vickers thought it was a bad idea–she wanted the strong stuff up front.

Instead, The Jay Leno Show featured mostly unknown, and not that funny, correspondents in “Act 2,” after the monologue. Viewers gave up on the program well before Jay’s signature bits popped up closer to 11 p.m.

One point Carter does not seem to make is that NBC has its own stations in big, big markets. So it wasn’t just the affiliates, owned by station groups out there in the heartland, that were suffering. The O&Os were taking it on the chin too.

As The Jay Leno Show ambles along, the program’s format–among other things–continues to hamper its performance, posits Carter.

“The bad agreements Debbie believed the show had made to win the stations over looked worse every day. Jay, usually a rock onstage, showed signs of losing his rhythm. He knew well that the key to perfoming successfully on a daily show was flow–flow of jokes, flow of segments. Splitting the best comedy bits off from the monologue was diverting the flow into a sad little pond.” 

Michael Malone
Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.