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The Leno Recession Ends!

January 8, 2010

It’s always interesting when an organization doesn’t learn from its mistakes. In the early 1990s, NBC tried to simultaneously please two late-night talk show hosts to no avail: Jay Leno stayed and David Letterman jumped to CBS. Now, almost twenty years later, NBC is again trying to find a way to keep Leno and his successor, Conan O’Brien, together.Reports say NBC will abandon its brief experiment placing Leno at the head of a 10 p.m. (eastern time) nightly show and return him to his old position at 11:35 p.m.; O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” would move to 12:05 a.m. (O’Brien may reject the proposal and walkaway from NBC altogether.) Like most compromises, this will please nobody.

Well, almost nobody. The television elites are ecstatic; Leno’s retreat from prime-time opens up five hours worth of time that can be filled with more expensive programming. Mary McNamara gloats in the Los Angeles Times:

[T]he 10 o’clock hour will once again be back in the hands of writers, directors and actors, not to mention all the ancillary crew involved in hourlong drama. There’s a reason dramas are more expensive to produce than the Leno show — they employ more people. Which NBC seems to have forgotten is a good thing, helpful, you know, to the local economy.

Not only did retail sales rebound a bit this Christmas, but the fall season proved that neither comedy nor hourlong drama is dead. Certainly it will be nice to have NBC back in the game, touching too, just as John Wells, who gave the network the iconic “ER,” settles into his new role as president of the Writers Guild where now, perhaps, a few more scribblers will be able to qualify for health insurance.

And that’s really what’s important here: Creating jobs for unionized writers. Nevermind that the Writers Guild strike two years ago indirectly led NBC to attempt its Leno-at-10 experiment. You see, as the guild system continues to drive up production costs – without providing any countervailing benefits to producers and networks – distributors like NBC sometimes panic and try stupid things like “The Jay Leno Show.”

It doesn’t matter whether NBC produces shows anyone wants to watch. It matters that those five precious hours per week support five unionized writing and production crews. Five bad shows are better than one bad show. The more bad shows produced, the more power the guilds have to extract even higher prices – under threat of state-sanctioned strikes – during the next round of contract “negotiations.”

Of course, then the networks may panic and try to cut costs again. As I said, it’s always interesting when an organization doesn’t learn from its mistakes.

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