Tonawanda News

January 21, 2010

COLUMN: Casualties of the late night wars

By Phil Dzikiy<br><a href="mailto:phil.dzikiy@lockportjournal.com">E-mail Phil</a>

“Are you getting tired of hearing about it? Me neither.” That’s what David Letterman said about the “Tonight Show” drama at NBC, and I couldn’t agree more. Late night television has become appointment television. Such feuding and bickering can’t last forever. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Late shows are primarily designed to be comfortable. You know what you’re going to get. The host comes out, goes through some type of monologue, takes his seat, does a comedy bit or two, brings out the guests, and ends with a musician or stand-up comedian. This is late night, most of the time.

But not right now. All the hosts are sniping — mostly at Leno — and Leno is trying to snipe back. It’s delicious. I can’t get enough of it.

Most people seem to feel the same way. Ratings for “The Tonight Show” are up. Conan O’Brien’s name is now one of the Internet’s top search items.

This and other bits of evidence point to the court of public opinion being in Conan’s favor. The bigwigs at NBC might not realize it — what a surprise — but throwing Leno back on “The Tonight Show” won’t be a cure-all.

Will the ratings go up from Conan’s “Tonight Show?” Of course they will. First of all, Leno will have a 10 p.m. drama du jour as his lead-in before the news, which is much better than what Conan got, which was “The Jay Leno Show.” And yes, some people who are more comfortable with Leno’s brand of stale humor will flock back to “The Tonight Show.”

But that viewpoint is alarmingly short-term. What if Leno’s audience doesn’t come back in full? What if those viewers have latched on to another show by now? What if Conan ends up on Fox, in a competing timeslot? Can Jay’s core audience stay awake until 11:35 p.m. for much longer?

You wonder if NBC has considered any of this. Conan’s “Tonight Show” isn’t great — not as good as his “Late Night” show, but it’s still better than Leno’s “Tonight Show.” Or perhaps I should say, “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” isn’t great ... yet.

Conan’s “Late Night” show got better with time. Yes, time. Although it may be hard to convince network executives of this, patience is an option. (Although NBC is the network that took “Freaks & Geeks” off the air after one season, 10 years ago. Fans of great TV are still bitter about that.)

As for those ratings, one-time NBC ratings dynamo Jerry Seinfeld came out in defense of Leno recently, saying, “I don’t think anyone’s preventing people from watching Conan.”

That’s easy for Jerry to say. He had time. It took “Seinfeld” four seasons to crack the Nielsen top 25, and five seasons to really hit its stride. In another world, maybe today’s world, “Seinfeld” could have been killed by NBC in a year or two.

The patience argument could also be used to defend Leno’s 10 p.m. show. That is, if it wasn’t a nightly talk show going up against powerhouse dramas in primetime. It’s less Leno’s fault than it is NBC’s fault, really.

And so, both Leno, who once said he would gladly pass on the show to O’Brien, and NBC, which didn’t think this through, and didn’t give Conan enough time, come off as hypocrites.

NBC President Jeff Zucker told the New York Times, “I think part of why there’s been such a visceral reaction to this is we’ve talked about change and taking risks, and that’s something I’ve always been associated with. And not being afraid to take chances.”

What’s it worth to take a chance if you’re not going to stick it out? But I can’t argue with the risk point. Overseeing a decline from first to last in overall network ratings — that is risky business.

Can NBC recover? Of course, if it makes an attempt to emphasize quality. That’s how NBC became the lead dog in the first place. The network still has the best night of comedy on any network (Thursday) — use that as a starting point, and develop more great shows.

But it’s hard to see that happening while the current braintrust is still in power.