Howard Kurtz: NBC's plan to replace Jay Leno sits well with critics
He says Leno's brand of comedy appeals to much of America
Critics are free to prefer Fallon, Kimmel, but replacing Leno is risky, he says
Editor’s Note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and is Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.
The news that NBC plans to dump Jay Leno – again – lifts the curtain on a dark corner of the media business.
Is it the fact that a network could be thickheaded enough to call the same play that blew up last time with the Conan O’Brien debacle? Nah. That’s pretty obvious.
It’s the way that television critics despise Leno, and how that colors the coverage of the late-night wars.
When The New York Times’ Bill Carter broke the story last week that NBC is ready to hand “The Tonight Show” to Jimmy Fallon in 2014, there was this line buried deep in the piece: “Another complicating factor has been Mr. Leno’s success in the ratings.”
Let’s ponder that for a moment. Leno has the top-rated show at 11:30. NBC executives are nonetheless planning on booting him when his contract expires in the fall of 2014 and moving the show from Burbank, California, to New York.
Imagine how that story line would play out if critics and reporters viewed Leno as sympathetically as they do, say, Fallon or Leno’s ABC rival, Jimmy Kimmel.
What?? NBC is kicking Jay to the curb? The guy who has made the network hundreds of millions of dollars over the last two decades? The man who bounced back from his last firing and regained the late-night throne? What did he do to deserve this?
Instead the media reaction is a collective shrug of the shoulders: Yeah, makes sense. Time to wheel the old guy off the stage. Jay hasn’t been funny since the Clinton administration and Fallon appeals to a younger crowd.
Time’s James Poniewozik writes that “Jay ‘It’s just a business’ Leno deserves no man’s pity however this plays out.” The Atlantic complains about his “groan-worthy jokes.”
But here’s the thing: Leno doesn’t appeal to anyone but the viewers. At least those who live west of the Hudson River and east of the Santa Monica Mountains. He does broad comedy and hardly wields the kind of cutting-edge style favored by the bicoastal elites. But much of America likes him.
Does the 62-year-old comic skew old? Well, he’s been beating Kimmel and David Letterman even in the coveted 18-to-49 demo.
The critics made the same mistake last time around. Conan was so much funnier than Jay that giving him “Tonight” rather than risking his departure was a brilliant move by NBC. Except that O’Brien’s quirky humor appealed to a narrow slice of the audience, the ratings plummeted, and a $32 million payout later, he was gone and Leno was back.
Leno has been punching back in his monologue, likening NBC suits to “snakes” and saying that the network’s motto is “The Biggest Loser.” The Times reports that a top executive ordered Leno to stop mocking the network, a ham-handed attempt at censorship that has obviously failed.
One strange twist is that some conservative pundits are carping that NBC is ousting Leno because of his jokes about President Obama (he ribs every president) and because, unlike the more openly liberal Letterman, he appeals to the heartland.
It’s obviously more of a dollars-and-cents gamble that Fallon is the future. And indeed, Jimmy Fallon makes sense as Leno’s eventual heir.
But in their haste, NBC execs risk blowing up the situation the way they did in hustling Ann Curry off the “Today” show, sparking a backlash against Matt Lauer and sending what had been the iconic morning show plunging into second place. Their prime-time lineup is in fifth place. Do they really need to immolate one of the few time periods where the network is No. 1? Fallon’s a young guy. Johnny Carson was 66 when he stepped down. What’s the rush?
The critics, of course, won’t be happy until Leno is working the comedy clubs where he spends his vacations (and possibly competing against NBC from Fox). And they are entitled to their views of who has comedic chops and who is out of gas. But in this case, they’re out of touch with the people who vote with their remote controls.
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