Monday, January 18, 2010

Late Shifting

After all the behind-the-scenes gaming of the past two weeks, those of us who follow TV's late night yak-pack with any degree of interest could be forgiven for thinking we'd flashed back Lost-style to the early '90s.

Back then, the abdication of the late night throne by Tonight Show star Johnny Carson set about a war of succession between Carson's permanent fill-in Jay Leno and Late Night host David Letterman that saw Leno taking the coveted Tonight spot and Letterman acrimoniously bolting for CBS. The drama behind the '92 late night war was chronicled quite effectively in Bill Carter's book The Late Shift (as well as the made-for-cable movie of the same name), from which you can read an excerpt here.

Now, the stated intent behind announcing a Tonight Show succession plan in 2004, with Leno slated to step down five years hence and Conan O'Brien waiting in the wings, was to avoid precisely this scenario and instead have an orderly transfer-of-power. Well, the best laid plans of mice and men, as they say, often go astray, and that brings us to the here and now, with NBC essentially taking a kerosene can and blowtorch to their hallowed late night lineup after having already done the same in primetime for the last several seasons.

The Reader's Digest version for those who haven't followed the story is that the 10 PM Monday-Friday strip Leno had been given as compensation for walking away from his Tonight perch (which I talked about here) didn't quite work out the way NBC had hoped. Its middling quality (which wasn't, in all honesty, that much different from his Tonight) and regular fourth-place finish had begun to bring down the rest of the net's primetime sched and was making it tougher for local newscasts to retain an audience.

This, coupled with Conan's lowered ratings on Tonight (before the proverbial poop began to fly last week, he had lost more than half of Leno's average audience, and was regularly beaten by both Nightline on ABC and Letterman on CBS), has led the net's execs to (again) move the pieces around the board hoping for a checkmate. After an attempt to slot Leno at 11:35 and O'Brien at 12:05 was soundly rejected by the latter, it now appears that Conan's Tonight tenure will end this coming Friday -- barely seven months in -- and Leno will retake his still-warm chair mid-February. Feeling whiplashed yet?

What's been most interesting to see has been all the "I'm with Coco" stuff that's gone viral over the last week, and the ensuing dogpile on Leno for what many presume to be his behind-the-scenes scheming to get back the job he never wanted to leave anyway. While I've been a regular viewer of the O'Brien Tonight Show since it began last Spring, and while there's no doubt he's getting royally shafted in this whole thing (well, not too royally, given his $30-plus mil "walk away" settlement), I'm wondering where this so-called "Team Conan" was when he was getting trounced nightly in the ratings.

I also think it's probably unfair to make Jay take it on the you-know-what (though the other late night talkers have sure had fun making merry sport of him lately) for many decisions that are out of his hands. No doubt, it doesn't look great that Leno's "reward" for failing at a venture that was ill-advised to begin with is to be handed back one of TV's most venerable brands, booting his successor off in the process. Still, it could just as well be argued that Conan's failure to retain the ratings lead his predecessor had built and maintained for the the vast majority of his seventeen years put him in the lousy spot he found himself in.

While O'Brien may well be the better showman (he is), and Leno may too often go for the easy laugh (he does), the tale of the ratings tape is what it is. They don't call it show art, after all. Time will tell if the late night battle ends up thrice biting NBC in the posterior, either with Jay failing spectacularly in his Tonight return, or Conan succeeding spectacularly in whatever he does next. For a detailed analysis of the whole situation that's both evenhanded and logical, check out this blog post from Mark Evanier, who echoes many of my feelings on this matter, and has far knowledge of this stuff than I.

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