NBC has announced that Jay Leno is leaving prime time in February, and that they’re in talks to put him back in late night, right between local newscasts and a later “Tonight Show.” Apparently the hold up is Conan O’Brien, who’s not tickled at the idea of being shifted around. I don’t know what the talks are at NBC, but I hope there’s a lot more screaming than talking.
If this were a political mess, I could comment pretty easily. So I think I’ll treat it as such.
Why Conan shouldn’t compromise:
- There’s a legitimate argument to be made that the reputation of “The Tonight Show” as a brand would be harmed if it’s moved later. This isn’t just because moving it later will guarantee worse ratings; it’s because if you show that the flagship of NBC’s late-night line up is actually movable, you reduce its status. The reputation of “The Tonight Show” supposedly exists as a separate thing from its current host; it’s the show that Johnny built, that Jack built, that Jay… kept at number 1. It’s been at the same time for years and year, and it built that spot and deserves to stay there.
- Conan O’Brien hasn’t had a fair chance to build a solid late-night audience in his new time slot. Sure, maybe he’s mismatched for the 11:35 slot (see my previous rumination on Why Jay won’t go away), but he wasn’t even given a good clean shot at it. Quick, name someone who’s gotten a rawer deal recently from a network than Conan O’Brien, whose takeover of The Tonight Show was completely overshadowed by NBC’s attempt at prime-time housing for Jay Leno. (Joss Whedon doesn’t count, because he keeps coming back for more from Fox). Therefore, to punish O’Brien for less than stellar ratings is disingenuous; he’s really being punished for Leno’s bad try. Not fair.
Why he should:
- O’Brien’s reputation is built on a kind of self-deprecating geniality that will be easily damaged if this fight drags out. The only person in late night who has a more solidly amiable reputation is Jay Leno, and he stands to benefit broadly from any missteps O’Brien makes here.
- Would a Conan O’Brien show be competitive against Jay Leno reinstated on “The Tonight Show,” if Conan made the move to Fox? I doubt it, and I say this as someone who would certainly tune in to Conan reading the Yellow Pages over Jay Leno doing stand up. Conan’s already losing head-to-head against David Letterman; would a third-place late night show really be a career improvement? (Nothing, by the way, could really be much of an improvement over being the host of “The Tonight Show,” a fact I assume Jay Leno has run into headfirst in the past few months).
I think he should fight for as long as there’s a reasonable chance of victory — but I can’t imagine what that victory would look like, now that the network’s on record as hoping Leno will slide in at 11:35.