Something monumental occurred on TV earlier this month that didn’t involve Jon and Kate Gosselin or the notorious Spencer and Heidi Pratt. For only the fourth time in its 55-year history, The Tonight Show saw a changing of the guard. As had been planned since 2004, Conan O’Brien, 46, took over for Jay Leno, 59, and their styles couldn’t be more different: Leno is a populist. O’Brien is niche. Leno’s humor is broad. O’Brien’s is quirky tomfoolery (look no further than his June 4 skit in which he poses for his own paparazzi picture).
And there’s nothing — absolutely nothing — in the TV industry that’s being more scrutinized right now than the newest race to dominate late night. ”There are going to be people who habitually watch The Tonight Show, so Conan is going to have to assume the tone of the show,” says a high-ranking executive at a competing network. ”But you’re going to have real brand issues. Conan’s going to have to play — for lack of a better word — blander to appeal to that broad audience. I think that’s going to be really, really tough.”
The stakes are enormous: Late-night shows are major moneymakers (Leno recently bragged that it costs less to produce five Tonight Shows than a single episode of an hour-long drama), and they can define the sensibility of an entire network. So it’s no wonder that almost every broadcaster and many cable networks want one — or four. (Starting in September, NBC alone will be airing three and a half hours of talk shows every night.) And with 10 of them airing on six networks between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., celebrity booking wars are inevitable. So is viewer fatigue: How much silliness and sarcasm can one person really watch? Sure, all the shows will probably survive — but at what cost? And what shape will they be in after the bloody battle?
O’Brien’s 16-year-long tenure at 12:35 a.m. didn’t exactly blow the roof off NBC. Though it was beloved by critics and Emmy voters, Late Night With Conan O’Brien began to show ratings vulnerability against time-slot competitors Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson long before O’Brien stepped down in February. So pundits were wary before his first Tonight Show outing on June 1. And yet by all accounts he had a terrific night, both critically (EW’s television critic Ken Tucker called it ”a large-scale, impressive debut”) and with viewers: O’Brien earned a 7.1/17 preliminary rating in homes, a 78 percent improvement over Leno’s Monday-through-Friday average. ”We are the superstars of TV because we are the only network that anyone is talking about,” proclaims Ben Silverman, the NBC Entertainment co-chairman. ”We’re all so excited because the numbers are really broad, he’s really connecting, and the shows are so qualitatively good.” Yet opening-night ratings are always inflated because of initial interest, and by June 8, O’Brien’s ratings dropped 56 percent to a more typical 3.1/8 — just a hair better than Letterman’s 3.0/8. O’Brien’s numbers should hold at more or less these levels through the summer — well, until Sept. 14, to be exact. That’s when Leno takes his act to prime time, five days a week at 10 p.m. And that’s when things will get interesting.
Depending on whom you talk to in Hollywood, shifting Leno to earlier in the evening is either the most brilliant move in broadcast history (”Audiences are hungry for an alternative at 10, and the alternative they want is comedy,” insists NBC’s head of research, Alan Wurtzel) or the most stupid (”Leno and O’Brien are basically going for the same material and the same audience,” counters the high-ranking exec. ”If I were NBC, I’d be concerned they may start to plagiarize one another”). Despite what Leno says publicly, few believe his show will be markedly different from his version of The Tonight Show: Sketches, a monologue, and a celeb-friendly place to promote projects are bound to be the norm. And that proven formula is going to make life a lot harder for Leno’s former peers — a possibility that Leno perpetuated when he said that even young people don’t stay up late these days. Battles to land A-list talent will be fierce. The chance to sit on Leno’s couch in prime time could end up being far more appealing than, say, going mano a mano with O’Brien 90 minutes later. ”To say there’s not going to be this ‘If you do them, you can’t do us’ is bulls—,” says one high-powered publicist. ”There’s definitely going to be a war.”
But the biggest fight will be for the after-hours audience. While the number of homes watching television at that time has remained consistent over the last five years — about 39 percent — viewers have abandoned the traditional late-night hosts for other alternatives. Despite his 14-season dominance, Leno was still down nearly 12 percent before he left The Tonight Show on May 29, while CBS’ The Late Show With David Letterman is off 15 percent. Where did the viewers go? Some went to Kimmel — the 41-year-old host is up an impressive 14 percent — and others drifted to Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. But the biggest drain on the late-night arena came from a player without a pulse: Almost 6 million people use the period between 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. to play back shows they’ve recorded on their DVRs.
And the landscape is only going to get more fractured. In November, comedian Wanda Sykes (The New Adventures of Old Christine) will host a Saturday-night talk show on Fox (some have speculated it could eventually move to weekdays, if it succeeds), while TBS will also enter the fray in November with new programs featuring George Lopez and Tim Meadows. Though Lopez’s four-day-a-week show at 11 p.m. will inevitably resemble a traditional chatfest — he’ll do a monologue and host guests and musical acts — he says his Latino heritage gives him a substantial advantage over his white counterparts. ”I don’t need anybody white to watch my show and I can still win,” says the 48-year-old comedian. ”Even Chris Rock told me I don’t need to speak English to win.” (Meadows’ weekly half-hour show, by comparison, will be more a showcase for stand-ups.)
But as appealing as the alternatives may seem, all eyes will continue to focus on the Big Three and whether O’Brien can inherit the King of Late Night throne. He’ll have to contend with Letterman for a while, since CBS has an agreement in place to keep the 62-year-old host on the air through 2012. Not surprisingly, advertisers drew their conclusions long before O’Brien taped his first show on the Universal Studios lot. ”There is that initial curiosity, but in the end, Letterman is the most mainstream of what’s there,” says Shari Anne Brill, the director of programming at Carat, a media-buying firm. ”I think Letterman will probably wind up surpassing O’Brien, and Leno devotees will watch him earlier.”
Ouch. To his credit, however, O’Brien appears to be taking the naysayers in stride; he’s not above doing a little prognosticating himself. On his opening night, O’Brien gave a humble shout-out to the ”man who hosted this show for 17 years [and] took very good care of this franchise… Mr. Jay Leno,” before deadpanning, ”and he’s gonna be coming back on the air, I think, in two days — three days, maybe, tops.”