15 January 2010

The Late NBC

Zucker: Time to go back to the mailroom?

With so many other, more serious things going on in the world, I have somewhat shamefacedly found myself thoroughly engrossed in the ongoing saga of NBC’s late-night hosts. Some of my interest is at least marginally professional: as an employee of a national television network in the ’80s and ’90s, I seldom did understand the thought processes (if any) of my corporate bosses, and it’s satisfying to see one suit, NBC Universal’s President and CEO, Jeff Zucker, publicly humiliated for his colossally crappy judgment. Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien seem to enjoy watching Zucker squirm; so do I.

I was working at CBS when Zucker ascended to the executive producer’s job at NBC’s Today Show; that was also the era when Conan O’Brien was plucked from obscurity to host Late Night. Both Zucker and O’Brien are only slightly younger than I, and (at least as far as most people knew at that moment) not notably more deserving or better-looking, albeit Harvard-educated. Resentment seethed among us CBS underlings. We worked at an old fogey’s network — while at NBC, they gave all the coolest jobs to whippersnappers like us! Hell, we thought, we should just go to work at the NBC mailroom; clearly, within a matter of months, they’d hand the place over to us.*

O’Brien: Team Captain
Fight fiercely, Harvard!

Nowadays, both Zucker and O’Brien are of an age that seems more appropriate to their lofty positions, and O’Brien has distinguished himself wonderfully on the job. (I don’t resent him anymore. I promise.)

For most of us, the NBC turmoil really doesn’t matter at all. For O’Brien and his crew, who uprooted from New York and transplanted to Los Angeles, all in the pursuit of Zucker’s folly — the situation is more serious. And throughout the process, poor Jay Leno has done exactly what his bosses asked of him, and been punished for it. Yet I don’t think anybody need spill a tear for any of these people. Even if Zucker joins the ranks of the unemployed, he won’t go hungry.

In France, I can’t even watch clips of the Leno and O’Brien shows. In its infinite corporate wisdom, NBC blocks its programming over here, with a view to reselling it to foreign markets. Obviously, the French are just dying to watch Leno and O’Brien, people they’ve never heard of, telling jokes that, by the time they’re translated and dubbed, won’t even be topical.

Leno: An object lesson in the perils
of doing what your bosses ask.

But I do like the guys, and I once had a sort of encounter that left me feeling quite fond of Leno. When he took over the Tonight Show, he took some pretty harsh criticism, and I urged Dan Rather to send him a note of encouragement. He did so, writing something to the effect of “Hang in there. I know how tough it is to follow a television legend.”

A few days later, the office phone rang. It was Jay Leno, asking — in a voice choked with emotion — to speak to Dan. Ever after, Dan had an open invitation to appear as a guest on Leno’s show, and though accepting that invitation required some delicate diplomacy with David Letterman, Dan did eventually make his way to Jay’s desk.

There is a human dimension to all the nonsense at NBC. It won’t bring relief to Haiti or reform health care in America, but it is — in some curious way — real.

*NOTE: In reality, of course, that’s not quite the way things work at NBC — but on the other hand, Kenneth the Page is a star today, isn’t he?

The Next Wave of Administrative Power at NBC

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