Seth Kahan
Author, consultant

Seth Kahan

Change expert and author who has advised executives in 50-plus organizations, including Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps and NASA. He can be reached at


The $60 Million Man

Q: Jay Leno is back in his 11:30 p.m. "Tonight Show" slot, after a disappointing run in prime time and a messy showdown with Conan O'Brien, who briefly replaced him. Can Leno win back his status as king of late night and all-around nice guy? As viewers turn away from the networks, can anyone be expected to dominate an increasingly splintered audience? Are the days of Johnny Carson-like success over?

Jay Leno could be the 2010 version of Coca-Cola Classic, if he's lucky.

In 1983, Pepsi had begun to seriously gain on Coca-Cola. And Coke was also dropping in popularity. Coca-Cola's senior execs commissioned a secret effort called, "Project Kansas." The purpose was to identify a new formula that would beat both Coke and Pepsi in taste tests. They found it and took it to market as New Coke.

It was a fiasco. Mark Pendergrast called it "the marketing blunder of the century" in his book, For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It. Protest calls came to Coca-Cola HQ by the thousands. People began hoarding old Coke in their basements. Long story short, Coke announced the return of the original formula less than three months later, calling it Coca-Cola Classic.

The day the original formula returned to the shelves, it was announced on the front page of major newspapers across the country. The Coca-Cola website says, "The Coca-Cola Company received 31,600 telephone calls on the hotline. Coca-Cola was obviously more than just a soft drink." Coke realized they had a brand on their hands.

Will Jay Leno use this opportunity -- is he reading his history books? Are his publicists and agents? There is a real opportunity here, to build on the response and go beyond the Carson mystique.

First it was, "He's breaking up! He's breaking up!" Now it could be "We can rebuild him; we have the technology. We can make him better than he was before." Perhaps he will become the $60 Million Dollar Man . . .

By Seth Kahan  |  March 4, 2010; 12:01 AM ET  | Category:  Comeback attempts Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Retro Leno | Next: What's next?


Please report offensive comments below.

Listen. The people who watch Leno, for better or worse, are the same people who watch Lawrence Welk marathons on PBS fundraisers. These people don't want change, or edge, or anything that would strain their brain. They're people who can stay up past midnight because they don't have a job that requires them to be in at 7:00am. The "Carson mystique"? Did you actually watch Carson in the last 5-8 years of his show? DREADFUL, but it was the sameness, the familiarity, that keeps that specific audience tuning in. These people would rather eat at the familiar McDonald's than try (ooooh, shudder, risky) some local cafe. Leno apparently knows this - why else would he have the world's dimmest bulb as a guest? Because he knows HIS audience is a bunch of rubes who think Palin has more than 4 brain cells.

Posted by: Quatermass | March 5, 2010 4:19 PM
Report Offensive Comment

I always find Jay Leno formula of the late night show boring and less sophisticated than the Letterman show. That said, with Oprah and Rossie on O'Brien side, Mr Big Jaw will have to work hard to gain back the audience. In show business, you have to learn when to go: You said you will go but pop up back unexspected, you've got a problem

Posted by: huynh02 | March 5, 2010 9:08 AM
Report Offensive Comment

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company