How to Think About: Boycotting Jay Leno's Return

It's not as straightforward as you might think

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(These "How to Think About" articles are intended to help you to think through issues in the news about which you may be undecided. We tell you how to think about it. What to think about it is up to you.)

Tonight, American television viewers are faced with the choice to receive Jay Leno's Tonight Show back into their homes. Some will refuse because they object to the way he reclaimed his job, or because they don't enjoy his humor. But if you are on the fence, here are some things to consider.

If you believe Jay Leno has done nothing wrong, then a boycott seems childish and misguided. Fans may agree with the defense Leno gave Oprah Winfrey in late January: "It all comes down to numbers in show business." If Conan had earned higher ratings, no Leno-Conan shakeup would have occurred. The ultimate decision rested in the hands of NBC's chief executive Jeff Zucker who needed to stop the network's hemorrhaging of viewers. "In show business," Leno mused, "there's always somebody waiting in the wings. Being me."

Unfortunately for Leno, he can't so easily wash his hands of the decision. Five years ago he agreed to hand over his position to Conan O'Brien to keep O'Brien from fleeing NBC. After stepping down, Leno quickly made it clear he wanted his job back. Jimmy Kimmel publicly scolded him for this. When Leno asked Kimmel what the best prank he ever played on someone was, he said "The best prank I ever pulled was I told a guy that--five years from now--I'm gonna give you my show. And then when the five years came, I gave it to him, and then I took it back almost instantly."

What about Conan O'Brien fans? If you disagree with the way he was removed from his job, then a boycott seems fair. O'Brien was forced to move his wife and kids from New York to Los Angeles for a five-month temp job. He rightly argued that his ratings were low because Leno's show provided a meager lead-in audience. However, there is one thing loyal Conan fans should consider: schadenfreude.

The typical Conan fan loathes Leno's humor for being middle of the road and un-spontaneous. Leno's style served as a successful strategy for a long time, but American media consumption has fractured. This is where the schadenfreude comes in. Because of fragmenting audiences, it's possible Leno's return will prove a failure. For the same reasons some people like watching gut-wrenching sports bloopers, Conan fans may want to tune in.

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This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.