Late-night TV war is a downer

by Jim Longworth

In the early 1940s, the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were tops at the box office for one simple reason: America was at war with a very scary man, and laughter was the right medicine for taking our minds off of the danger.

Some years ago I interviewed Don Bellisario for my TV Creators books. Bellisario, who created such hit shows as “Magnum PI,” “JAG” and “NCIS,” was just a young boy in 1941, and recalled what happened the day his parents heard about Pearl Harbor on the radio. Don’s father asked his mom, ”What are we going to do?” Don’s stoic mother replied,”We’re going to the movies like we always do on Sundays.”

In the decades that followed, millions of Americans have come to rely upon late-night television talk shows to take their minds off of their prevailing troubles in much the same way as they did on movies during World War II. Programs at 11:30 p.m. have always been a safe haven for us, giving us an opportunity to temporarily forget about foreclosure notices, car repos, medical bills or our lack of employment. They allowed us to laugh, relax and then nod off to sleep. That is, until last week, when NBC threatened to disrupt our safe haven.

Having failed to draw an audience for his new 10 p.m. program, Jay Leno was rewarded with his old time slot, but only for a half hour (11:35 p.m. to 12:05 a.m.).

The plan called for Conan O’Brien to follow Jay and continue as host of “The Tonight Show.” Conan refused for a number of reasons. First of all, you can’t call a show “Tonight” if it starts in the morning. Second, he had worked his entire career to snag the coveted 11:30 p.m. time slot and wasn’t willing to settle for something less just six months after he took the job. And third, Conan respected the tradition of “The Tonight Show,” and wouldn’t be a party to dismantling it.

The buck-stopping architect of this mess is NBC chief Jeff Zucker, an arrogant young man whose only claim to fame was having produced “The Today Show” when Matt and Katie were clicking on all cylinders. Instead of giving him a raise, GE gave Zucker NBC, which he has systematically taken from first to last place.

Zucker is not a well liked man. A friend of mine who worked on “Crossing Jordan” told me that Zucker had a thing for “Jordan” star Jill Hennessy, and once called the producer to demand that an upcoming scene be written in such as way as to require Hennessey to be filmed in her underwear. Zucker is also despised by those who were displaced from their jobs when Leno was first given the 10 p.m. slot five nights a week. An average TV drama production team consists of as many as 200 people, so over a thousand families were affected. Who knows, maybe Zucker dropped all of the dramas simply because he ran out of people who were willing to parade around half-naked. No matter, because the entire network is now in a state of undress (I mean duress), and its emperor doesn’t seem to know he’s exposed.

In one sense, I could care less about Zucker, Leno or Conan.

I’ve been in Letterman’s camp for over 20 years because he’s funnier than Leno, and he’s the only late-night guy who can conduct some semblance of an interview. But even those of us who aren’t fans of Leno and NBC should still be offended by the peacock debacle. That’s because Zucker’s demolition of primetime dramas had the effect of a greedy corporation shutting down five of its largest plants.

Moreover, the ripple effect of Zucker’s boneheaded move cost local TV stations revenue, which in turn triggered layoffs. Culturally speaking, NBC also deprived us of some great storytelling that used to occur with 10 p.m. dramas. And worst of all, his latest shake-up has disrupted our safe haven of comedy and turned it into a battleground. The last thing any of us needs in these tough economic times is to be shortchanged of lighthearted diversion, instead treated to corporate greed and incompetence. It’s enough to keep you awake at night, but we could have accomplished that without any help from NBC .

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).