>Late-Night Love-O-Rama

>Well, although it seemed like it was behind us all, the Talk Show Host Drama continues. The “Late-Night Wars” seem to continue, and people are still taking sides in the debate and potshots at the TV hosts. Leno has returned to “The Tonight Show”, Letterman is still doing his gig, and Conan O’Brien is waiting in the wings, presumably ready to take over his own talk show on FOX later this year. Everyone really seems to be in a win-win scenario, really, since each host will soon have his own show; But the arguments rage on, and people are still tossing blame.

How about this: What if none of the hosts are really to blame?

It’s shocking, I know, to think that it couldn’t possibly be one of the three TV personalities who has so destroyed the reputation of late-night programming. Yet it’s possible, isn’t it?

To blame Leno is trendy. It’s what a majority of people seem to be doing. After all, he announced his retirement five years ago on “The Tonight Show” and extended the job offer to O’Brien at that time. Then, when 2009 came along, Leno balked at the idea of leaving. He stuck around and got his own show at 10pm. When that show failed, he managed to actually take back the very show he left in the first place. On the surface, it looks easy to blame Jay Leno for putting Conan O’Brien out of work.

But it’s just not that simple.

Everyone is acting as if Leno had some major clout he didn’t have. If he was so powerful, he wouldn’t have been strong-armed into retiring in the first place. Yes, as much as everyone likes to believe that Leno announced his retirement from “The Tonight Show” as a sweet gesture as he approached his golden years, the truth was that Leno didn’t want to leave when the idea came up years ago. If Leno is to blame in this mess, his biggest crime was simply not standing up to NBC years ago. But Leno is (and always has been) a Company Man.

Knowing that Conan’s contract would soon be up, and the popular late-night host had plenty of other opportunities he could explore, NBC did what they thought would keep him on the network: They offered him “The Tonight Show”. Great! Only problem: Jay Leno. Leno was #1 and had been for years. He’d managed to take something everyone associated with Johnny Carson and make it his own. But, if he could be persuaded out by being told he had no real choice, they might have a shot. So, NBC essentially bullied Leno out of the position. After all, what were the odds he’d be #1 in five more years?


Five years later, Leno was still on top and, believe it or not, was still planning to retire. That is, until NBC realized that “retire” didn’t mean he had to leave TV altogether. It just meant leaving “The Tonight Show”. Rumor has it that both FOX and ABC were courting Leno for a show that would go right up against Letterman…and Conan O’Brien’s new “Tonight Show”.

Imagine how NBC would’ve looked if Leno had been forced to retire, left the network, then shot to #1 on FOX? Imagine if Leno was BEATING HIS OLD SHOW! How would NBC look then? They’d look like the idiots that replaced the #1 host in order to put the #3 host in his place. It’d be a huge debacle.

So, they offered Leno his own show at 10pm. ALSO a bad idea. In fact, this was the worst idea in the entire list of bad ideas since this entire thing began. Yes, it was cheaper than 10pm programming usually is, but that’s not something viewers care about. They liked their “Law & Order” and crime shows at 10pm and their talk shows after 11pm. Some things never change.

Leno’s biggest mistake (besides simply not telling NBC where to go when they asked him to retire)? He made the 10pm show essentially “The Tonight Show” at 10pm. That wasn’t what it was proposed as. It was supposed to be a variety hour, akin to the old Variety Shows of the 60s and 70s. Instead, it was just the same show with a slightly different set. Had it been another type of show, it might have succeeded and gotten bigger numbers. But, since it was essentially the same show as before, it drew the same numbers. That’s great for 11:30…but sucks for 10pm. So, it was seen as a failure. And, yes, the local affiliates thought it killed their lead-in to the local news.

Now, a quick argument could be made here that The Local News has enough problems without a Leno lead-in, but that’s another argument for another time. Regardless, the local affiliates were pissed that their numbers were smaller. Many talked about dropping the Leno show, which was now quickly seen as a failure.

Meanwhile, O’Brien wasn’t doing that great, either. Conan’s show was coming in second and, sometimes, third place, behind Letterman and Nightline. It was the fist time in 50 years that “The Tonight Show” was losing money for NBC.

In defense of Conan’s poor numbers, his supporters managed to blame everyone…except Conan. They blamed Leno as being a poor lead-in. They blamed NBC for not giving him more time to find an audience, as they allegedly did with Leno 17 years earlier. They blamed everyone except the very fans who didn’t tune in to watch Conan at 11:30pm. All that blame, however, can easily be tossed aside when you really stop to look at the reasons given:

1. The “Lead-In” Myth. People say that, because Leno was doing poorly at 10pm, the local NBC news was doing poorly at 11pm. Because of that, O’Brien was doing poorly at 11:30. So, it all goes back to the Evil Leno again. Problem here is that the “Lead In” argument is based on dated information and calculations. The theory is that people tune in to one station and watch it all night long. That made a lot of sense in 1965. In 2010, it doesn’t pass the mustard. In today’s age of remote controls and DVRs, does anyone stay on one station anymore? Does anyone really watch what’s on at 11:30pm because of what was on at 10pm?

If this myth is true, then Letterman would not have been #2 for 16 years. CBS has dominated the 10pm time-slot on most nights for the better part of a decade. Do the letters “CSI” sound familar? So, if people chose their late-night host based on 10pm programming, why was Letterman consistently losing to Leno? Better yet, ABC dominates the 10pm time-slot on occasion thanks to shows like “Lost”. If the “Lead-In” Myth is true, why isn’t Jimmy Kimmel the #1 host on Tuesday nights?

Isn’t it more likely that people choose the show they want and the host they want? When given the choice between Leno and Letterman, people chose Leno. When given the choice between O’Brien and Letterman, people chose Letterman. Despite its legacy, maybe the name of the show isn’t really the reason people watched “The Tonight Show” after Carson left. Whatever the case, to argue about “Lead-In” ratings is ridiculous, when you consider it’s not an argument ever made before in regards to late-night ratings. If no one argued it for 17 years, why did it suddenly become a factor in 2010?

2. The “Conan Didn’t Have Enough Time” Myth. People argue that seven months was not enough time for O’Brien to find his audience. When Leno first took over “The Tonight Show”, it took him a while to find his stride, they said. People even point to the false (yet passed around) legend that Leno only took over the ratings after a fresh-from-scandal Hugh Grant appeared on his show (Why THAT particular myth is just that is a completely different story altogether). Had Conan been given more time to find his audience, he might have succeeded.

This myth ignores the fact that O’Brien wasn’t new to TV. He was a hugely famous, successful TV star, who had a successful talk show, bestselling DVDs, primetime specials, and hosted everything from awards shows to an episode of “Saturday Night Live”. He is a household name. There was no one sitting around wondering who “That Conan feller is”. Again, this myth ignores the fact that many people don’t even watch the late-night shows until the next day.

Understand, I’m not “blaming” Conan O’Brien. I absolutely love the guy. Conan O’Brien is hilarious, and a wonderful talk show host. His comic timing is brilliant and his personality is perfectly affable. He’s great at what he does. He deserves to succeed.

That said, his audience simply didn’t follow him, and Leno’s audience didn’t care to watch. O’Brien’s fans want to blame everyone for why his show failed, yet none of them can explain why, if they’re such huge fans, so many of them weren’t watching his show. Was his “Tonight Show” such a departure from his “Late Night” show that they turned away? Did Leno’s fans simply not like him? Whatever the case, Leno’s fans went with him (or Letterman), and O’Brien’s fans didn’t really stick around.

So, Leno was offered to come back. Why on Earth wouldn’t he want that job? Who are we to think he owes any of us his retirement? Why should he quit doing something he’s so good at and, apparently, so many people want to see him doing? He shot right back to #1 and, although not as strong as before, his ratings are proof that people will follow the guy they like rather than listen to what the local weather guy tells them to do. To assume that Leno should walk away in order to appease a O’Brien’s fans is silly, especially when you consider that O’Brien’s fans didn’t come out of the woodwork until it was too late.

So, it’s great to see people line up to cheer on O’Brien now. It hopefully means that whatever show he hosts next will be a huge success. Many hope that, wherever that show winds up, it’s more like his “Late Night” show and less like his “Tonight Show” which, as many have said, seemed less suited for him than the edgy comedy he was doing before.

Hard to believe, but I like all four late-night hosts (including Kimmel), and tend to watch highlights of each show rather than entire episodes. I like to catch each of the monologues, and think they’re each hilarious. Why choose one? Just because I like “Lost” doesn’t mean I think “Law & Order” sucks. That’s why I’m not interested in thrashing anyone. Honestly, it’s not talk show hosts that make decisions like this, it’s network guys.

Take it from someone who has watched a network guy ruin a perfectly good idea: It’s not the fault of the TV Hosts. They’re just trying to make us laugh. In this case, they all succeed. Everyone wins. When O’Brien left “The Tonight Show”, he said “don’t be cynical”. Wise words, if you ask me. So, go have a chuckle and stop being pissed.

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