I figure it’s my turn to comment on the fray that’s become the late night wars between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, wars that never should have occurred in the first place.
Here’s the deal for the uninitiated. Jay Leno this is one of the host of the Tonight Show for about 17 or 18 years. The show came on at 11:35 at night and ran for an hour. It was followed by the Conan O’Brien show, which also ran for an hour. In 2008, it was announced that Jay Leno would be giving up the Tonight Show and that Conan O’Brien would be taken over. Everyone thought that was a fair deal, and that maybe the Tonight Show needed some fresh blood.
Somewhere along the line, Jay Leno decided that he didn’t quite want to give up television life just yet. Leno has always been a very active guy, still doing comedy tours and weekend shows while he was host of the Tonight Show. But he must’ve gotten used to the big money that television gives you, so he started a little bit of back chatter. What the network, NBC, decided to do was save a little bit of money in television programming by creating a nightly show for Jay Leno at 10 PM. The show would come on Mondays through Fridays and run for an hour.
The network love this idea; almost nobody else did. When I first heard it I said to my wife “that’s not gonna last and Jay Leno be back on the Tonight Show within a year”. It turns out I’m sort of prophetic; it didn’t even last a year, and by all accounts Jay Leno will be back as the host of the Tonight Show during the last week of February after the Winter Olympics. Conan? Well, he decided not to be emasculated by being pushed back to 12:05, and it’s probably gonna take his ball and go play elsewhere.
My overall opinion is that both moves were the wrong move from the beginning. Jay Leno still had the number one rankings for late night, and there was no reason to believe that they were going to be falling anytime soon. It would have been interesting to see Jay Leno in the spot when David Letterman was going through his problems and eventually took over the number one spot for a while. When Conan took over the Tonight Show, he had the number one rankings for a few nights, but then Dave took over and that was that.
I don’t know how many people saw the Conan O’Brien late night show, but I never thought that he would be the common guy who would work well in 11:35 spot. He’s nice enough guy, but is never come across to me as a comfortable and engaging guy whom people would look at and say “there is a guy like to sit down and have dinner with.” That’s the kind of guy Jay Leno is. You were just comfortable with Jay, and you could tell that his guests were comfortable with him also. I don’t know that anyone could really ever see Conan O’Brien sitting down with the President of the United States or any other big-name politician and having a regular conversation with them.
I also wondered about the strategy of having a Monday through Friday talk show during primetime. I mean, just which networks did you think were going to allow the stars of their television shows to appear on his show? Whether their shows were directly on opposite his or not, it was now more of a threat to the other networks than a promotional tool. Initially some of Jay’s old friend did show up, but by the end, which is in actually over just yet, you could tell it was a bad idea that just wasn’t going to work.
Let’s face the facts folks. We want real entertainment during our primetime ever gonna be watching TV. Late night talk shows during primetime might work on the cable channels, but we’ve all come to expect something different on the networks. Sure, NBC did save some money, but they seem to forget their legacy, which used to be a network that knew how to pick original programming that was actually good. At least they had the good sense to make sure to bring back, in some form or another, all of the Law and Order shows.
I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t watch late night TV shows all that often. As a matter of fact, I tend to watch a lot more documentaries that I taped earlier in the evening. When I do decide to check out late night, I used to love to mix up the Tonight Show and David Letterman show, because each show has something that I enjoyed and would laugh at. While I enjoyed Conan show at 12:30, there was nothing about his show at the earlier hour that ever seemed as good as anything that David Letterman had on his show. Then again, I’m almost in the next demographic that they’re not shooting for anyway.
At this point it’s almost all over, and come the end of February it’s going to be like the final episode of one of the seasons of Dallas, where they decided to write off the whole season by saying that it was just a dream sequence. A year from now someone’s going to ask “did Jay Leno actually have a TV show on before 11:35?” And probably no one can remember.