There are a lot of people talking about NBC’s “big mistake,” the decision to replace Jay Leno with Conan O’Brien on the Tonight Show. Well, memories are short. Or maybe simply short on “free space,” like your camera’s memory card. It’s 1993-1995 all over again.
Yes, initial ratings have David Letterman regaining the lead in the battle of NBC vs. CBS at 11:35. But if there’s one lesson from the set of circumstances that led to the Tonight Show/Late Show face-off (Johnny Carson’s retirement in 1992, Letterman’s bolting to CBS a year later), it’s to not jump to any conclusions about late night supremacy during the first couple years of the new regime.
Letterman trounced Leno in the ratings for nearly two years when they first went head-to-head. So much so that a book was written (The Late Shift by Bill Carter) in which Letterman was triumphantly declared the “King of Late Night,” and NBC execs ridiculed as fools for letting him get away. This was undoubtedly a redemptive time for Letterman, his fans (like myself) who thought NBC gave him the shaft, and for Carson, who’s personal choice, not that NBC cared, for his own replacement was Letterman.
But as we now know, the book was written to soon to reach the conclusion it did. Leno tweaked his show, building a new set that bought him mere feet away from the audience and making his monologue longer, changes that seem obvious now that played to his strengths as a stand up comedian.
Then there was the night Hugh Grant came on. Grant had been recently busted for soliciticiting a prostitute. Even so, he kept a previously scheduled appearance with Jay, who’s first question was famously, “What the hell were you thinking?” Leno beat Letterman in the ratings that night. And never looked back, besting Letterman’s numbers every year after.
So who will prevail? Who will be the new King of Late Night? Hard to say, and it’s probably the wrong question to ask. About ten million people tune into The Tonight Show and The Late Show combined on any given night. But TV viewership across all time-slots continues to trend downward. The competition for eye balls now includes the Internet, video games, and cable TV. Being “King” over the entire nation, a la Carson, is getting harder and harder to pull off. Your best hope is to be “King” of your province.
Like in 1993, there’s factors we can’t see right now. How long before Letterman decides to retire? How soon before Conan warms up to his new time slot? Or middle America to him? Traditionally, the 11:35 time slot has hinged on the monologue. It’s a place America has gone to get jokes about current events. Monologue superiority alone might’ve been the reason Leno beat Letterman. The monologue edge (for the time being) goes to Letterman. That’s never been O’Brien’s strength. But NBC is banking that times are changing. That comedy will prevail. That’s Conan’s terrain. His skits, bits and characters are light years ahead of Letterman, who did this sort of thing much better as a younger man. It’s a weapon in Letterman’s comedic arsenal that he seems to have forgetten he ever had, or refuses to use anymore.
Audience fragmentation is about to get more so with the launch of the Jay Leno Show on September 15. And if it works, if a viable “late night” style show airs at 10 pm, will Jay’s viewers necessarily feel inclined to come back at 11:35 for Dave or Conan? Not only is the pie getting smaller, but there’s more people sitting at the table than ever. The slices are smaller, and that’s that.
A couple years ago, I would’ve said there’s no way a 10 pm comedy/talk show would work. But in today’s changing media terrain, I think it has a legitimate shot. We already know Leno’s legendary work-ethic, and the goodwill with audiences he’s amassed over the last 17 years. And Jay will certainly have the superior monologue going for him.
Yes, I’m embarrassed to admit I was one of the ones who basically rooted against him when he took over the Tonight Show. But I say don’t count Leno out. People did that to him once. We were wrong.