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Friday, February 28, 2014

The Last War For Late Night

In some ways, this week has been the result of two decades worth of dealings, betrayals and manipulations in the world of late night talk shows. Now that the fairly terrible 2014 winter Olympics are over, Seth Meyers has had his first week on NBC as the new host of Late Night. Jimmy Fallon is the host of the Tonight Show. Leno is off the air. Letterman is the Johnny Carson of late night, having survived the longest and Arsenio Hall is back in syndication. I guess he finally kicked Leno's ass.

I've now read "The Late Shift" and "The War for Late Night," the comprehensive tomes from Bill Carter about the behind the scenes (and occasional on-air) antics of networks, talk show hosts and their champions and minions. I had some moderate interest in the story from 1992, both as a fan of David Letterman and a viewer of "Forever Knight," one of the casualties when Letterman went to CBS.

Conan O'Brien's departure from NBC in 2010 set the stage for this week. That story was similar to the fight from the 1990s. Leno was both the good soldier and potential traitor. He was always willing to give up the Tonight Show (at least as a bargaining tactic) to keep it. He made a deal with NBC that if they didn't like his 10pm show and took him off the air, Leno could be on TV somewhere else the next week.

In a lot of ways, Conan became a victim of modern times. With a 10pm show, older Leno fans could get him an hour earlier and go to bed. Conan skewed extremely young, and many in that age group were watching Comedy Central at 11pm. At the same time, Leno's show had such low ratings compared to other prime-time fare, it hurt the 11pm news in NBC affiliates which, in turn, hurt Conan's ratings.  When Conan finally walked in 2010, ABC already had their own star and Fox could not effectively mount a new talk show. If he had walked in 2004, he could have been on a network, but he wanted the Tonight Show.

Leno didn't fare so well, either. He made money for NBC, but he also worked cheap. The 10pm show was a disastrous move because it almost lost them affiliates. When the next contract came around, Leno decided he was done with the Tonight Show. He's essentially a stand-up comic who tells jokes at 11:30. Of all the options available, I think the CNN slot opened up by Piers Morgan's firing is the most likely option. I suspect that Leno won't be the ratings powerhouse that some might hope.

Then there's David Letterman. After the 2010 handover, Dave invited Jay to appear with him in a "worst Superbowl party" ad for "The Late Show" also featuring Oprah Winfrey. I think Dave buried the hatchet because he finally got closure. Dave had a small chance to get the Tonight Show by taking over for a floundering Leno in the early weeks of the show for an 18 month trial and no guarantees. The Conan incident revealed that NBC uses the show as a pawn, dangling it in front of people and taking it away when they think they can do better. It even happened to Leno. Letterman makes more money than Leno, owns The Late Show, has a production deal and over 20 years in the same time slot. Leno often describes himself as an employee and he is. When it's his time, NBC fills the chair with someone else. Letterman made the right decision.

I find myself watching Conan O'Brien more often now and chuckling at YouTube videos of his show. I'm over Letterman due to his annoying politics and lack of innovation. Arsenio is as bad as before and less interesting. Jimmy Fallon? I think Lorne Michaels thinks anyone who did Weekend Update can have a talk show. Dennis Miller did a pretty good job.

In my case, I wish Forever Knight was back on.


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