NBC is the media’s piñata, slammed for everything from screwing up the 10 p.m. original-drama slot to ruining Conan O’Brien’s sleep. But in its own accidental, cynical, necessity-as-mother-of-invention way, NBC’s new late-night schedule could really work for the network. Here’s why:

Presuming Conan agrees to all this (and I think he’d be making a big mistake going over to Fox), we’ll soon have an NBC late-night schedule with Jay on from 11:35 to around 12:05, and The Tonight Show from 12:05 to 1:05. Jimmy Fallon will rub his eyes and broadcast from 1:05 to 2:05. This is a minor revolution in late-night: No network has ever timed its shows to air in this formation.

What does this mean for the competition? David Letterman goes up against Jay in the opening monologue duel, but Dave also faces Conan’s sharp monologues during The Late Show‘s second half-hour, which is when Dave is working his hardest to make sure that his second, B-list guest keeps your interest and that the music acts are lively. This could be a problem for The Late Show.

Even if you’re not a Leno fan, you have to concede that, when he hosted The Tonight Show, his barrage of jokes, the sheer tonnage of humor, was one factor that enabled him to beat Letterman, whose approach has until recently been to keep the monologue brief — a parody-monologue, almost — and then get to his unique, invaluable, “What’s stuck in my craw?” stuff (his true comedy gold) for his second-segment move over to the desk. Which could, dismayingly and depressingly, lead to Leno pulling ahead of Letterman once again.

On the other hand, Craig Ferguson will now start his show during The Tonight Show‘s second half-hour, which thus far under Conan has been pretty snoozy, and then fend off Fallon’s monologue (which frequently sounds like jokes that Conan has rejected and faxed over from The Coast), which Craig can probably do pretty easily.

By contrast, Craig comes out a winner, and all the more ready to move into CBS’ 11:35 slot, when and if Dave hangs it up a couple years from now.

This analysis doesn’t take into account that no one has any idea how viewers will watch these shows. Will they be more likely to stick with one network now, or more likely to channel-flip and time-shift even more energetically?

Let me be clear: As a critic, I hope Dave continues to dominate 11:35, and that my theory about Ferguson comes to pass. But as a late-night observer, I’m just saying, NBC may have stumbled onto something here.

What do you think?

You can follow me on Twitter @kentucker.

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