Sunday, March 14, 2010

Leading by a Chin

It feels like forever ago that the nation was wringing its collective hands pondering the fate of its late night franchises. Whither O'Brien? Whence Leno? Why Fallon? Legions of Conan-come-lately fans were proclaiming Leno's return to The Tonight Show DOA thanks to the outpouring of support (and ratings) his successor/predecessor generated during his last weeks with the gig. I said even back then that it wouldn't happen, and it hasn't. Jay Leno is once again the king of late night. At least for now.

I'd set my DVR to catch Jay's first batch of new shows back, but as of this week I may be just about done. I was hopeful that recent events would reinvigorate Leno's comedy, but it just feels like more of the same. There doesn't seem to be any drive to prove that yes, he does deserve to have the show back. Its odd to me that he would keep so much of what made the primetime strip so "eh," starting with that God-awful muzak-style theme music. As usual the monologues are his strongest stuff, but that says more (or less) about the other comedy bits, many 'ported over from The Jay Leno Show, which run the gamut from "mildly amusing" to "painfully unfunny."

Based on the ratings for the first two weeks of the new/old Tonight Show, I'm clearly in the minority on this one, which isn't all that surprising. For most of his (first) time in late night, Leno's audience was set at about five million viewers, enough to make him the undisputed ratings champ. His 10 PM show attracted almost the exact numbers (of viewers, not ratings, as the prime time share comes from a larger pool), implying that his fans would follow him back to late night just as they'd followed him to prime time, which they appear to have done.

In the short term this is good news for NBC, as it puts their key late night franchise back on top. In the longer term though, it remains an idiotic move executed idiotically. Leno's margin of victory is much slimmer now thanks to the seven months Letterman had to grow his audience, and its doubtful that Jay's numbers will expand much beyond where they're at right now. Coupled with the fact that Leno still isn't getting any younger, it puts NBC right back where they were five years ago, only this time without a clear successor on deck (and I'm wondering who'd even want to succeed him, given what happened the last time).

Time will tell obviously, but based on the news generated by his Twitter activity, and the fact that -- much to my chagrin --his planned stage tour pretty much sold out the minute tickets became available, it sure looks like Conan has already won the buzz war (and in case you're wondering where unemployed sidekick Andy Richter has been in all this, he emerged this past week with some choice words for the Chin). Of course, the continued interest in all things Conan gives O'Brien a very strong negotiating hand when it comes time to entertain offers for his next televised yakker, about which the only certainty seems to be a fall bow.

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