by pat howard

Thoughts on the Conandrum

In The Friday Five on January 15, 2010 at 12:21 pm

We may have just lived through the most dramatic week for late night television in nearly two decades. The popular assumption right now is that Leno will return to a one-hour Tonight Show, and Conan O’Brien will be released into the wild.

We’ll never know how Conan might’ve done with a traditional lead-in.
He took over Tonight last June, a time of traditionally lower viewership and a lineup consisting mostly of repeats. Then Leno took over that last hour of primetime, bludgeoning NBC affiliates’ late news and leaving little for Conan to work with. If and when Leno returns to 11:35p/10:35c, there will be no accurate way to compare the numbers with Conan’s run, because he’ll have dramas and Dateline as a lead-in once again.

This move practically ensures that The Tonight Show dies with Leno.
Jimmy Fallon and Carson Daly are unlikely heirs to a broadcasting empire that will age out of desirable demographics into unprofitable obsolescence. By the time Leno decides to hang it up, what is the likelihood that NBC will retire the franchise and return the time (and control of the advertising) to affiliates?

This was the season of talk show hosts becoming the story.
More than ever, hosts are getting material from their own highly public controversies (and each other’s). It’s a shame Jenny Jones or Sally Jessy wasn’t around to talk Letterman through this extortion scandal or discuss Craig Ferguson’s memoir about his troubled past. And the Leno-O’Brien debacle is begging for a chair-throwing contest on Jerry Springer, with Jimmy Kimmel cheering from the sidelines. The celebreality craze television created as a programming strategy is now cannibalizing itself, and at least in the short term, it’s paying off in the ratings.

No one knows what will become of Conan O’Brien.
Not to mention the hundreds of staffers who moved their families across the country for this gig. The prospect of a Fox show is shaky at best. Cable could be an option, but Comedy Central already has Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert (and their experiment with Conan reruns a few years back was short-lived). He could take his show to the Internet’s loving embrace, but it’s uncharted economic territory…maybe he’s just the cowboy to tame it? I have no doubt he will receive many offers, or that he has ever been so popular as he is at this moment.

No one knows how much worse can things get at NBC.
The once-proud Peacock was already a primetime disaster several seasons running. Now it has fostered an unprecedented amount of ill will from viewers by making a public spectacle of its problems while continuing to subject America to Jay Leno. My guess is that, in its pending takeover, Comcast will spin itself as “the hero that restored NBC to its former glory while monetizing it for a 21st century economy” (I’m available for PR work, incidentally).

New York Times television reporter Bill Carter wrote a seminal book about the Leno-Letterman debacle in the ’90s, called The Late Shift. I want to read it again in light of all this, and with every headline I keep thinking what a great sequel Carter could make out of history repeating.

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  1. Conan O’Brien will make it big in cable. Cable is the home of Gen Xers! I’m with COCO: http://ribsramblings.wordpress.com/2010/01/15/pistols-at-dawn-conan-obrien-jay-leno-and-the-late-night-debacle/

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