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Jay Leno fiasco a prime-time mistake Add to ...

Here's the thing: The news that NBC will reshuffle its late-night talk-show lineup to accommodate the return of Jay Leno, is funnier than  anything that's been on late-night TV in months.

Day after day I tell you here that the TV racket is kinda crazy. Now, maybe some of you will believe me. Television is endlessly fascinating. Essentially it's a toxic mixture of commerce, entertainment and art.

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In this fiasco, commerce was the guiding principle - The Jay Leno Show (NBC,  CITY-TV, 10 p.m.) was cheaper to produce than dramas that air at 10 p.m. on network TV.

There was a gamble that Jay Leno would be entertaining. There was no way that NBC would attempt to make dramas for grown-ups, airing at 10 p.m., material that might come close to being popular art.

But at its core this fiasco proves again that television is driven by vanity, hubris, malice and, too often, the arrogance and conceit of middle-aged men. Guys of a certain age rule. They have notions. They have strategies. And to anyone who disagrees, it's eff-you, you're nothing, you're a nobody, you're pathetic. We've seen it in Canada and we've seen it, over and over, in the U.S. network racket.

Remember the name Jeff Zucker? It has appeared here on occasion. The first appearance was in July, 2001. Back then, Zucker had just been made president of NBC Entertainment. The NBC lineup for the new TV season was getting flak so, to the sound of Pat Benatar's song Hit Me with Your Best Shot, he came onstage to meet TV critics in Los Angeles and wore a bulletproof vest. Funniest thing he's ever done. Zucker moved up and up the ranks at NBC. It was his decision to stop airing drama on NBC at 10 p.m., move Jay Leno to that timeslot, and put Conan O'Brien on The Tonight Show. Well, Jeff just zucked up, you could say.

It's amazing, right now, to realize that six months ago, an astonishing idea about the TV racket was floated and then it just stayed in the air for a while. The idea was that Jay Leno might be a big hit at 10 p.m. and, soon, CBS, ABC and Fox would be airing chat/variety shows in prime time. It was utterly absurd, but supported by a lot of men who work in the TV racket or report on it. Maybe it was a guy-fantasy thing - prime-time network TV entirely in the hands of Leno, Letterman, Conan O'Brien, Craig Ferguson and a bunch of others. All chatting away merrily with pretty young lady actors who want to promote a movie and, of course, the hosts telling lame jokes about sports. No more dramas about women doctors, lawyers and cops. Just guys hanging out, shooting the breeze.

What unfolded was different. Leno was lame. Conan O'Brien never quite clicked on The Tonight Show. David Letterman probably took time away from dealing with lawyers, alleged extortionists, his female staff and his wife, to laugh at the ratings for O'Brien's Tonight Show. Meanwhile a woman writing for Vanity Fair figured out that out of the 50 or so comedy writers working on Late Show with David Letterman, The Jay Leno Show and The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien combined, exactly zero are women.

Middle-aged guys, from Leno himself - the ultimate establishment guy - to O'Brien and Jeff Zucker mismanaged NBC into this fiasco. Even as Leno's ratings tumbled and O'Brien looked desperate on The Tonight Show, nobody put up a hand and admitted a mistake. These guys don't admit to failure or screw-up. They're used to praise and obedience. In a way, the whole NBC late-night fandango mirrors the financial mess that was wrought in the United States thanks to the unfettered hubris of banking and financial CEOs.

Back in 2001 I spoke to Jeff Zucker in Los Angeles. He was going from table to table, critic to critic, at an NBC event, talking up his new shows. Eventually, he came to talk to me. He didn't devote much time to talking to a critic from Canada, but that's understandable. I told him that I'd spent time at the Banff Television Festival with Steven Moffat and Sue Vertue, the writer and producer of Coupling, the BBC show that NBC had bought and remade, as "the new Friends." I told him that Moffat had wondered why the pilot episode of Coupling had cost the BBC about £20,000 (about $32,000 U.S.) and the NBC version, which he wrote, cost about $700,000. "Where does all the money go?" Moffat had asked. So I asked Jeff Zucker. He laughed and said it cost money to hire the best talent. And, if they were the best, they deserved it.

He can hardly be laughing now. In fact the only good thing out of this mess made by all those cocky guys has been the laughs given to the rest of the world. Thanks, guys.

18 to Life (CBC, 8 p.m.) rolls along nicely. Monday the teenage newlyweds Tom and Jessie realize they need their own place to live. Tom's dad (Peter Keleghan, effortlessly funny here) has the idea of putting the couple in the "granny suite" in the attic. You can see where it's going. Not always riotously funny, but cleverly done.

American Masters: Sam Cooke (PBS, 9 p.m.) is, as you'd expect from this series, a well-crafted biography of the singer and a rumination of his life and legacy. Cooke's amazingly strong but sensuous voice made him a star very quickly. But he always straddled a divide - between his Gospel heritage and pop, between his clean-cut image and the reality of his life. He died, gunned down at age 32, in the most lurid of circumstances.

Men of a Certain Age (SuperChannel, 10 p.m.) is finally airing here. Ray Romano - who is also writer and executive producer - is Joe, separated from his wife and owner of a party-supply store; Scott Bakula is Terry, a single-guy and actor who never made it big but has charm, and Andre Braugher is Owen, a choleric car salesman who works for his overbearing dad. They talk, they work. Not much happens but there are moments of poignancy about middle-aged men who struggle with life. Same as it ever was. J.D.

Check local listings.





Globe television critic Andrew Ryan blogged live from Pasadena on NBC's announcement



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