A Falling ‘Idol’; Don’t Blame Leno

Rick Hamada
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Wednesday - March 10, 2010
Jay Leno chats with Sarah Palin last Tuesday

I was a big fan of American Idol a few years back. Daughtry is my preferred Idol, but I also enjoyed Ruben Studdard and think that Carrie Underwood will be a legendary country music performer.

But this season of Idol is nothing like the seasons gone by. It’s kind of like going to your regular restaurant, ordering your favorite dish and finding they’ve changed the recipe - and not for the better.

First of all, Paula Abdul is nowhere to be found. She was subtly shown the door last season and she is not missed. Simon Cowell, the face and personality of the show, is leaving to present another show on another network. And, for the first time, Idol was toppled from the ratings roost. Granted, it was the Winter Olympic Games, but there is a shedding of the veneer of invincibility.


 

But this season it’s not the cast changes or competing programming that should concern Idol producers. It’s the dearth of real talent. As Simon would say, “It’s simply dreadful.” Unless there is the emergence of a bona fide star - and soon - this could be the beginning of the end of one of the most successful franchises in television history.

 

three star

Jay Leno has been bashed upside down and right-side up over The Tonight Show debacle involving Conan O’Brien, et al. The always classy and gracious Howard Stern reserved his venom on the day of Leno’s return to The Tonight Show last week.

In a network TV interview he basically said the mere mention of Leno’s name would cause him to “regurgitate.” I’ll leave the imagery to you. The bottom line is the bottom line. Just over five years ago NBC announced that O’Brien, the quirky, yet gifted former Saturday Night Live writer and host of Late Night, would succeed Leno five years later. Clearly, the network and the talent wanted to avoid the bloodbath that ensued in naming the successor to Johnny Carson upon his graceful exit.

The rift between Leno/Letterman/NBC/CBS is legend. With his departure imminent, Leno and his team decided not to bow out of the talk game. Rather, they (along with NBC top programmer Jeff Zucker) seized the opportunity to present a late night format in prime time. O’Brien got The Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel was inexplicably given Late Night. But there was just one teeny, tiny problem. Leno’s show stunk. So much so that local NBC affiliates were losing ratings and revenue on their late newscasts. Fast forward and Leno is in at The Tonight Show, Fallon is still in at Late Night and O’Brien is the odd guy out.


Many thought Leno threw O’Brien under the bus. Not true. It was just bad decision-making on the part of NBC management. If there is a blame to be leveled, it’s at the feet of “unreasonable expectation of profitability.” By inserting an ill-prepared Leno talk format, NBC executives were able to forgo the much more expensive episodic drama in favor of the shoestring-budget Leno show. It seems that economic pressures clouded the creative judgment. So the demise of Conan O’Brien wasn’t Leno’s fault. O’Brien was collateral damage.

Lest we forget, O’Brien negotiated millions of dollars upon his dismissal and many believe he will emerge with his own late night show on FOX. He is going to be fine.

Lo and behold, despite the cries of “We’ll never watch Jay,” Leno has clobbered Letterman and Nightline the first few nights of Tonight. It appears for those who derided Leno all is forgotten, which means all is forgiven.

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