The (Not) Tonight Show

Jay Leno announced way back in 2004 that he would step down from The Tonight Show and hand the keys over to Conan O’Brien. (Watch for yourself.) This is pre-commitment on an impressive time frame — five years in advance of execution.

Roll the clock forward to tonight, and we see this commitment unwinding very quickly after its execution. (Conan joked earlier this week that he should have known something was wrong when he received a 2010 calendar as a gift from NBC… and it included only the month of January.)

We’re big fans of pre-commitment: making a decision today about future behavior. So where did Leno’s pre-commitment go awry? Perhaps it was that the decision was made too far in advance, with too much opportunity for his preferences and situations to change.

Or maybe it’s that Leno didn’t put enough bite into his pre-commitment. This type of choice architecture seems to work best when we make decisions today that change our future options or irrevocably alter the incentives the future us face. As far as we know, it’s not Leno that’s forking over the $40 million it’s costing to scoot O’Brien and crew out of The Tonight Show studio.

What Leno did do was make a public statement about his intentions. Five years *is* a long time. Situations change, and many of us would understand had he decided in the intervening period to rethink his decision. But that’s not what happened. He did step down, and when things didn’t work — for both his new show and The Tonight Show — he (and NBC) wanted to undo it all.

This may make perfect business sense, and NBC (as well as all the other networks) is a business. This may be the right thing to do in the long haul, from a market perspective. But Leno’s pre-commitment took place in the social realm, not the market realm. It will be very interesting to see whether viewers care about this change of heart.

(Note: this entry originally appeared at

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