NBC got into trouble originally by forgetting what their great star Johnny Carson always knew -- The Tonight Show was about lulling an audience of sleepyheads off to sleep in a non-threatening and entertaining way. Or, as Billy Wilder put it in Kenneth Tynan's memorable 1978 profile of Johnny Carson for The New Yorker:
He enchants the invalids and the insomniacs as well as the people who have to get up at dawn. He is the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation.Leno was no Johnny Carson, but he did a pretty good job of performing this important function. He was easy to fall asleep to. Which is why moving him up to prime time was so stupid. Who wants Valium in prime time?
Of course, there were plenty of other contributing factors to the fiasco: NBC's all too apparent greed and short-term thinking. Their total disregard of the needs to their affiliates, which came back to bit them. The fact that no major network had ever made a nightly talk show work in prime time. Etc., etc.
But it all began with the fact that a face we long associated with dozing off in bed was guaranteed to be an irrelevant snooze in prime time (and that Conan was too excitable and hyperkinetic for the Tonight Show slot). Couple that with NBC's refusal to invest any resources in at least trying to turn the Jay Leno show into a real prime time player, the move was guaranteed to turn out badly. As will the new move. Who wants to go to bed and watch two people associated with failure on such a massive scale?