One of the most peculiar developments in the U.S. TV racket recently hasn't gotten much attention. And one is obliged to wonder why.
That development is an offer by Jay Leno to work for free as host of The Tonight Show on NBC. The Tonight Show's troubles – with ratings and costs – emerged as an issue a few weeks ago.
It was announced that Comcast, the new owners of NBC, had ordered layoffs at the show. According to the Los Angeles Times, "roughly two dozen staffers" were let go and Leno took a pay cut.
The Tonight Show, once a cash machine for NBC, bringing in an estimated $100-million a year in clear profit, is only breaking even these days, according to reports.
Leno's offer to work for free, again reported by the Los Angeles Times, was made in order to save the jobs of people on the show. The offer wasn't accepted because, it is suggested, the bosses at Comcast felt it would set a "bad precedent."
Still, it was an extraordinary offer to make. Leno earns about $26-million a year but, as legend has it, puts it all in the bank because he makes so much money from the many stand-up gigs he performs every year. He can afford to work for free, obviously, but in the TV business, nobody works for free except the Interns. Nobody.
And yet Leno's offer barely made a dent in the showbiz news cycle. Why? Because these days everybody loathes Jay Leno. In fact, dissing Leno has become a sport.
Howard Stern, who never allows a grudge to fade away, has been openly contemptuous of Leno since the fiasco that saw Conan O'Brien leave The Tonight Show and Leno return. Now he's back to Leno-bashing recently, calling him the sort of names that can't be printed in a newspaper.
Earlier this week, at an event in New York, Jimmy Kimmel (whose Jimmy Kimmel Live moves to 11:35 p.m. on ABC in January, to compete directly with The Tonight Show) was asked about Leno and, after swearing, heaped scorn on the guy. It was Kimmel who aimed the most devastating blows at Leno during the Conan fiasco by accepting an invitation to go on what was then The Jay Leno Show and relentlessly mocking Leno for undermining O'Brien.
Right now, Leno is the most hated guy in the TV racket, a target for abuse. Even the guests on his show deride him, as Dennis Miller did one night when he savaged Leno on The Tonight Show for his alleged Democrat leanings.
It has taken years, but Leno had it coming, many would say. In the first round of the late-night wars, lo those many years ago, Leno came across as a ruthless dweeb, so anxious to take over from Johnny Carson that he hid in a closet to eavesdrop on NBC execs having conference calls about The Tonight Show. In the second late-night war, he came across as a traitor, the guy who had promised to let Conan O'Brien take over and then changed his mind when NBC got nervous about the O'Brien-era Tonight Show.
For the longest time, Leno's security blanket was the success of The Tonight Show while he hosted it. The others could sneer but he had the No. 1 show. The others could mock his lame jokes but the public voted with their remotes to watch him, not the others.
Now Leno is vulnerable. The late-night landscape is not what it was. It is fragmented, furiously political and fraught. Jon Stewart and Colbert on cable shifted the dynamic away from the old days of three network hosts battling for viewers. And it was Letterman who inspired both Stewart and Colbert, not Leno.
With the Republican Convention reaching its apex tonight, it's appropriate to recall Letterman's assessment of Mitt Romney when Romney failed to make a dent in Florida in the 2008 primaries: "The Florida retirees didn't go for that Mitt Romney, either. He reminded them of a guy who tries to get a hold of their nest egg. He reminded them of a guy who sells subdivisions in the Everglades. He reminded them of the guy who pitches overpriced cemetery plots. He reminded them of the pharmacist who doesn't accept their prescription plan."
Mind you, Letterman is the angry old codger of late-night. Jimmy Kimmel is the man of the moment, mainly thanks to his who-cares attitude and the viciousness of his jokes. He's hosted the White House Correspondents' dinner and will host the Emmy Awards next month.
As for Leno, the end is nigh. Television changed, the culture shifted and he didn't. Now those he angered, annoyed and failed on his way to the top are having their revenge. And enjoying it more than most people enjoy The Tonight Show.