What does the new Jay Leno Show, launched Monday, tell us about America 2009 and about ourselves?
The baby boom that during the 1960s never trusted anyone over 30 now finds itself at the doorstep of the once-unimaginable Beatles song about being 64.
Boomers no longer burn their candles at both ends, and the oldest of us no longer stay up “late” to watch the Tonight Show. NBC's response: Move former Tonight Show host Leno — the closest thing boomers have to our own Bob Hope — an hour and a half earlier to grab bedtime eyeballs before they close and doze.
Boomers are not the ideal audience for advertisers because, unlike the young, we long ago decided and locked on which product brands we prefer.
But boomers, 84 million strong, remain the biggest demographic prize for those with products to sell. And boomers entering retirement can be sold new ranges of products, from Viagra and other medications to Depends, nostalgia, and tie-dyed hippie burial shrouds.
So Leno returned to NBC this week, sporting an American flag lapel pin, hair grayer than ever, and a slightly get-off-my-lawn crotchety tone.
I knew your mother, Leno on Monday night told hip-hop artist Kanye West; how would she feel about your MTV Video Music Awards (rude) behavior, snatching the microphone from award-winner Taylor Swift to declare that a rival video by Beyonce should have won instead?
Since former Saturday Night Live writer Conan O'Brien snatched the Tonight Show away from Leno last June, its audience has fallen almost by half. Worse, where Leno consistently beat CBS rival David Letterman's ratings, O'Brien has failed to do so.
But O'Brien has delivered what NBC says it wants most: a viewership on average 10 years younger than Leno's, for which advertisers will pay more money. This, in a sense, means O'Brien has 10 more years of shelf life on what since 2004 has been America's fourth-place network.
When the oldest boomers were young, a typical small American city might have only three or four television stations. The evening newscasts of NBC, CBS, and upstart ABC combined were seen by 80 percent of TV viewers, shaping their minds with a uniformly liberal slant from The New York Times, The Associated Press, and the mindset of fashionably elite opinion-makers who dined and partied together in Manhattan and Washington, D.C.
Today this media pie that used to be monopolized by a handful of people has been divided into a million thin slices. Those slices offer Americans a tremendous diversity of ideas and information as well as the ability to select news and entertainment from those who share your own views.
The problem for old dinosaur networks such as NBC is that the average American now can choose among many dozens of TV channels, and via the Internet has nearly limitless choices of things to read, watch, and hear.
This cornucopia of diversity and choice has sliced away the audience for old-time television, making it smaller than it has been since the mid-1950s. Combined with today's belt-tightening economy, this has left NBC with tough decisions over how to remain profitable.
Television dramas and sitcoms are expensive to produce. This is why the old networks have moved to cheaper “reality” shows.
And this is why NBC has gambled by giving a two-year commitment to Leno, whose new show can air five fresh one-hour episodes over an entire week for roughly the cost of producing a single hour of a typical one-hour TV drama or comedy.
NBC is betting that Leno might be able to produce a modest five-nights-per-week hit, but whether The Jay Leno Show hits or misses, it will almost certainly attract enough viewers at its rock-bottom production cost to be profitable for the General Electric-owned network.
But NBC risks becoming America's retro, even reactionary, network. Closely allied with left-liberal President Barack Obama, its cable network MSNBC (widely known as Marxist-Socialist NBC) echoes leftist views so absurdly one-sided and backwardly ideological that it embarrasses and damages the credibility of all NBC journalists.
As to prime time newscasts, CBS has Katie Couric as its anchor. ABC announced days ago that in January its new news anchor will be Diane Sawyer. NBC's Brian Williams, who will also appear frequently with Leno, will then be the only male anchor of the once-Big Three networks.
This might boost NBC's news viewership, but it will reinforce the Peacock network's image as yesterday's style of news and skew its audience older.
Who is James Douglas Muir “Jay” Leno? He was born April 28, 1950, in New Rochelle, N.Y., to a Scotland-born mother and an Italian-American father. Jay grew up in Andover, Mass., imbibing its liberalism along with reading material such as the independent socialist magazine Mother Jones.
Leno has described himself as a liberal on social issues but conservative on fiscal issues.
He boasted to one left-liberal interviewer that his Tonight Show writing staff included many former Democratic speechwriters but “no Republicans.” Leno wrote jokes himself for President Bill Clinton and his wife to use.
Leno is a longtime supporter of and fundraiser for labor unions, a track record that helped immunize him from censure by the Writer's Guild of America when he continued to write his own monologues during the 2007-2008 writers strike in Hollywood. The union granted Leno what amounted to an exemption from strike-breaker rules it applied to others.
Leno angered many on the left, however, by embracing California's nominally-Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has said that Republicans typically respond better to jokes about themselves than do Democrats, who tend to react badly to being the butt of jokes.
“I try to keep a sense of fair play,” Leno has said. “This is not a bully pulpit.”
“I don't want to be preached to as a member of the audience,” says Leno, who, like Republicans, tries not to take himself too seriously. “I like to hear a joke.”
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