Friday, May 29, 2009

The Tonight Show transition of power

By Rick Morris

The late-night era that began with the struggle to succeed Johnny Carson (chronicled so memorably in the 1996 HBO movie "The Late Shift") ends tonight with the final chapter in the saga that lasted the better part of two decades: Leno vs. Letterman. On a somewhat amusing note, the CBS show went out of its way to load up on guests this week, as though pulling out a win in the ratings in the very last days of the battle would erase a nearly 14-year beatdown!

The dynamic that will follow from this point forward is truly unique in television history. Conan O'Brien takes over Tonight starting this Monday to fulfill a promise made five years ago by the network when they sunsetted Leno's role as host. But for the first time in the history of the property, O'Brien will not be the unquestioned alpha dog of NBC talk shows merely by virtue of that post -- Leno's new show that will appear from 10-11 PM EDT every weeknight starting in September will keep him in a slot of ascendancy on the network. That opinion is shared by no less an authority than Mediaweek TV columnist Marc Berman, who voiced it on our FDH LOUNGE program this past Wednesday. Although both sides are dismissing concerns about network hierarchy as it relates to guest booking, the issue seems certain to assert itself by the end of the year at the very latest.

Moving from the 11:30 spot was never Leno's idea, nor was rocking the boat of his success something that made a tremendous amount of sense for the network. In fairness, though, they were caught in the midst of a potential bidding war for Conan's services back in '04 and they faced the possibility of seeing him become a formidable competitor. Whether or not they made the right choice, it must be acknowledged that they faced a tough choice.

As his remaining time wound down, Leno began to explore a number of different options, thus putting the network in a mirror image of their Conan conundrum! Last summer, we handicapped the Leno sweepstakes and we were correct in installing a stay at NBC Universal as the most likely option. After putting a number of possibilities on the table, the network ultimately built him a virtual Mayflower van for his "Irsay" move an hour-and-a-half earlier. He is taking with him essentially his entire Tonight Show identity with the network's blessing.

He faces long odds in winning ratings battles in that timeslot, but his show is so much cheaper to produce than a scripted network production that NBC likely won't care -- unless the affiliates see their 11:00 news ratings fall into the dumper as a result and riot. In all likelihood, the show will probably fare moderately well, enough to keep everyone happy.

The new Jay Leno Show will likely put a dent in Tonight, however, as the channel will be putting forth three hours of late night programming each night, interrupted only by the late local news. The middle-aged and older folks who are the backbone of Leno's audience won't have to stay up as late to watch the program, nor will they be forced to accustom themselves to O'Brien's brand of hosting.

So how will this affect the new Conan vs. Dave battle? Well, Letterman decided long ago to change his style (creatively, for the worse) to become more "accessible" to the older audience at 11:30. "12:30 Dave" is a distant memory and it's uncertain as to whether the decision to placate the earlier viewers paid off for him. Would he have been trounced worse by Leno had he kept his old persona, or did his ratings victories in the initial two years of the head-to-head mean that a core of people followed him from 12:30 hoping for the show to devolve into what it used to be? We will never know.

What we do know is that Conan's 12:30 style was even more experimental and younger-skewing than Letterman's show was -- and that's saying something. A change to safer and more traditional comedy at 11:30 would be an even more abrupt change for Conan than Dave's watering-down was when it began 16 years ago. Hopefully he won't try anything too over-the-top in his attempts to be palatable, like wearing a sweater vest.

The guess here is that the challenges in front of Conan -- deciding on how many of his quirky elements to retain in the new time slot and internal posturing against Leno's new show when it debuts -- will give Letterman an opening to take the ratings lead after the initial curiosity factor wanes. Factor in George Lopez starting on TBS later this year as another potential spoiler, plus whatever Jimmy Kimmel tries to put himself in the picture, and this era is easily going to be on par with the final years of Carson (with Arsenio and the other competitors) and the first few of Jay/Dave. The network must see this arrangement through at least for a year as the new shows at 10:00 and 11:30 try to get their sea legs. In the end, though, if both timeslots are significantly weaker a year from now, the network may revert to the tried-and-true formula at 11:30 and turn back to Leno to be the Grover Cleveland of Tonight Show hosts.

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