Thursday, June 4, 2009

Conan, The Destabilizer

Late night network TV has been a fairly stable, predictable day part for the major networks since roughly 12-15 years ago when all of the big fanfare with which Letterman ditched the two-faced NBC (who upon Johnny Carson’s retirement, snatched away from Dave the long-promised 11:30 slot and gave it to Jay Leno instead) in favor of CBS (thereby sounding the death knell for the once-popular Arsenio Hall show, and later the Keenan Ivory Wayans Show, the Chevy Chase Show, and the Magic Johnson Show on Fox, in the process creating a ridiculous surplus of stylistically identical shows – an opportunity that Garry Shandling, another former Tonight Show guest host during the Carson era, played for all it was worth on HBO’s brilliant “The Larry Sanders Show”) had finally settled decisively, and to the horror of modern comedy fans everywhere, the apparently soulless Jay Leno somehow took a commanding lead in the ratings over the sympathetic, funnier, quirkier, favorite of Carson himself, and in my opinion, clearly deserving, David Letterman.

Basically, late night worked like this: ABC’s Nightline could often pull a ratings lead by playing to the hot topic of the day, but NBC’s Tonight Show with Jay Leno usually came out on top in the comedy world, followed by Letterman, and either Fox’s latest disaster or whatever ABC put on after Nightline in last.  There were always going to be shows that followed the Tonight Show and Letterman’s Late Show, too, but no one really had big expectations there, and those shows generally were considered to be surfing on the lead-ins from the heavier hitting Leno and Letterman anyway.

However, to nearly everyone’s surprise, Conan O’Brien, Leno’s lead-out, who Will Ferrell recently joked, “No one – I mean no one! – thought [Conan O’Brien hosting the Tonight Show] would ever happen.  I mean, NO ONE!” clearly modeled his show and his onscreen persona after Letterman much more so than Leno, and stayed on the air. 

And stayed on the air. 

And stayed on the air. 

And the audience came. 

And the audience grew. 

Ratings improved to a point where it became undeniable that Conan was actually drawing ratings ON HIS OWN, not just because Chester was watching Leno, and fell asleep on the couch with the Nielsen box left on, which was literally the conventional wisdom in some circles.

Late Night with Conan O’Brien became the quirkiest, funniest, most daring show on network late night, and it succeeded largely on the strength of its host and namesake, as his sidekick Andy Richter moved on after his initial five year contract ended, and Max Weinberg, his bandleader and sometime comic foil, frequently left the show for long stretches to join Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Bandmates on a series of tours (an unprecedented and exclusive free pass given by NBC with O’Brien’s full support that is only half-jokingly referred to as “The Weinberg-Springsteen Rule” in Max’s contract by NBC executives).

So, 2004: Leno’s contract is renewed for five more years, as is Conan’s.  Jimmy Kimmel gets a new late night show on ABC starting at the odd time of 12:05 am, thus potentially stealing viewers from both NBC and CBS’s 11:35 juggernauts, and their lead-outs.  Of course, no one really expects Kimmel to pose any real threat, and The Daily Show, vacated by Kilborn’s move to the post-Letterman slot, is not entirely a known quantity following the change to Jon Stewart, who had, of course, previously had a failed late night talk show in syndication.

Leno, for reasons not completely known, agrees or declares that in 2009 at the end of his contract, he will leave the Tonight Show and says so ON AIR, even going so far as to almost (in an O.J. Simpson book kind of way) apologize for his role in the Letterman fiasco, and actually indicates that Conan O’Brien will get the Tonight Show.  For five years, speculation runs increasingly rampant that NBC will not allow ratings leader Leno to leave.  It appears increasingly evident that NBC will railroad Conan just the same way they did Letterman.

The crazy thing is, none of this was ever supposed to happen.  Conan was supposed to be holding on to as much of the lead-in from Leno as possible; that’s it and that’s all, end of story.  Jimmy Kimmel wasn’t supposed to last (he has!).  Craig Ferguson, who replaced the never-huge Craig Kilborn, who in turn replaced Tom Snyder (Tom Snyder! Seriously!)  in the post-Letterman slot --another reality that Shandling got a huge laugh out of on “The Larry Sanders Show” in the episode in which the neurotic Sanders overpays to steal Snyder from Letterman only to regret it instantly -- was not supposed to last (he has!  And he’s actually funny and dare I say it?  Genuinely unique among late night hosts!)

The upshot is, at this point, NBC has a big problem on their hands.  An embarrassment of riches, really.  They have a clear ratings leader in Leno, and they have a sympathetic NAMED favorite who now poses a serious threat if he were to be wooed to another network (such as Fox or a cable channel, where Comedy Central’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert are already wreaking havoc for them, proving that in an era of TVs with 2000 channels, where cable channels completely change their formats overnight, there are any number of places where Conan could be viable).

But what is Conan to do?  He could go to Fox, which has decisively proven that it is completely ineffective at constructing a ratings grabber in late night no matter what it tries.  Comedy Central is booked already, and Telemundo might insist that he do the monologue in Spanish.  It is not obvious that ABC would ditch Kimmel for Conan, and Nightline going away would potentially be an even less popular move that ABC would be reluctant to make.  Post-Letterman is occupied and, unbelievably, Ferguson occasionally beats Conan in the ratings anyway!

So, Conan’s not going anywhere if he doesn’t have to, and his golden parachute clause guarantees him a big payday (to Conan, anyway; though it’s ultimately a trifle for NBC) if NBC doesn’t “play,” in showbiz contract lingo.  NBC doesn’t want him to go, and will have egg on its face again if it screws him the same way it screwed Letterman. 

So, the problem isn’t actually Conan – oh, he’s not going anywhere.  The problem is Leno.  What the heck do you do with Leno?  Do you let him go? And what does that mean, anyway?  Go where?  Does he even really want to go?  If he stays, where do you put him?  If you don’t put him at 11:35, what do you do?  Does anyone care about him outside of late night?  Is he right for a sitcom?  Have you seen Leno act?!  A primetime variety show?  Have you seen a primetime variety show work since Carol Burnett 35 years ago?  Does Jay Leno even do variety?  Is Jay Leno even compelling enough to command an audience once a week in primetime, or does America need to be conditioned to develop a tolerance to him by having him shoved down their throats five nights a week?  What the heck is Jimmy Fallon doing with a talk show?  Wait, Carson Daly is still on the air?!

As we know, at some point, NBC executives came to a remarkable conclusion.  The best place for Jay Leno is apparently 10 PM Monday through Friday.  That’s right.  You’ll still get Jay Leno five nights a week.  You’ll still get him fairly late in the evening.  He won’t follow the news; the news will follow him!  The affiliates will love it, because Leno can slot some crazy ratings stunt right smack at the end of the show so people tune in and stay for the local news.  And, this way, Conan O’Brien gets the Tonight Show, whatever cache that once-storied franchise retains in the process, Leno potentially retains some sort of lingering “nice guy” reputation, and most importantly, NBC doesn’t look stupid.

Okay, maybe not that last part. 

Here’s the problem. 

Now, there’s yet another hour a week of late night to fill with content.  That means about 15 more slots for guests on NBC alone, meaning they now need to book approximately 75 guests a week just to load up Leno, Conan (both in LA) and Fallon (in NY).  Add Carson Daly (LA) and, well, everyone’s asleep by then anyway, so who cares what guests he gets.  So, for these 75-80 guests a week on NBC, add 30 for Letterman (NY)/Ferguson(LA), 15 for Kimmel(LA), and 5-10 for Stewart/Colbert(LA), and you’re talking about something like 215 guests a week on late night TV and that’s not counting some of the other stragglers like Chelsea Lately that are out there. 

Somebody better dig up the potato chip lady, because there’s going to be a LOT of air time to fill!

There is no way this will work!

No way!

Not a chance!


Unless by some bizarre set of circumstances, watching these shows at their regular timeslots, on devices called television sets, is no longer necessary, required, or even likely. 

Unless people can simply watch these shows – or, rather, the good parts -- on their DVRs in the morning over coffee and turkey bacon.

Unless people can catch ad-supported, bite-sized clips on the web, and share anything that manages to actually be interesting with their friends on Facebook, Twitter, and whatever the hell else is coming next.

Unless people can catch last night’s monologue on their cell phones while waiting in line at the DMV.

Oh, yeah, there is no way this will work.

Copyright 2009 By Jeff Becraft.  All Rights Reserved. 

This post originally appeared at  You may freely redistribute with attribution.

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