Late Night Wars: Reputation Winners & Losers

Late night talk shows produce some reputation observations. Who won? Jay, Conan, or Dave?

I’ve always been a bit of a night owl, often still up after the 11 p.m. news to see who is up to what on the talk shows. For the past decade, my preference was Letterman. I just didn’t think Leno was that funny. I know that for others, it is the exact opposite.

Even I have limits, and I didn’t typically stay up for O’Brien’s Late Show. He always pushed a little too far over some boundaries on his later slot, in my opinion, but when he moved into The Tonight Show, I thought he was reined in nicely and was very smart and funny. For the first time in more than a decade, I actually had to choose between two night shows (usually, scheduled guests were the deciding factor). Many of the Leno loyalists moved on, I guess, and as a result The Tonight Show dipped in the ratings (as did the new Leno show in the 10 p.m. slot — no surprise).

So, NBC president Jeff Zucker decided to cry “do over!” and put everyone back where they were. Except Conan wasn’t going and, by contract, didn’t have to.  And that’s where the fun began.

Conan began ripping on NBC.  Dave began ripping on Leno (and NBC).  Leno kind of tip-toed through the whole situation, although he took some shots back at Dave.  Leno also had Jimmy Kimmel on his show, who used the opportunity to take many jabs at Leno’s expense.  And the rest of the world was taking sides.  On Twitter, swarms of people used the #TeamConan or #ImWithCoco tags to demonstrate their support.  There were few taking Leno’s side.   On Facebook, I was only involved in one conversation about the situation, and most in that dialog seemed to like Leno better.

So, here’s my assessment of reputation winners and losers in this one. Please note: This has nothing to do with whom I think is funnier or more deserving of the show. Just observations.

Conan O’Brien — Hard to say that the guy who lost his seat behind one of the most coveted desks in comedy is a winner, but the huge public rallies held to demonstrate support and the outpouring of sympathy on the part of guest celebrities seem to indicate that Conan will have his show (Fox? Comedy Central? Something on the web?) and will be able to write new chapters of late night entertainment. Oh, plus he got his mega-millions payday just to walk away.  He earned additional reputation points for getting severance packages for his staff, for the huge ratings he delivered in the final weeks and, last but not least, his final show, which included a raucous guitar performance on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird (with Will Ferrell and an all-star band) and a goodbye speech that thanked NBC for the opportunity to realize his dreams and begged viewers to not by cynical. Instead, “If you work really, really hard, and you’re kind … amazing things will happen to you.”  Sounds a little like what I was talking about in my last post!  In any case, Conan can walk away with his head held high.

Jay Leno — He comes back to The Tonight Show, but it’s really hard to understand why a guy would want to gain it back in that manner.  Sure, he has his fans and they’ll come back. But I bet there will be a goood chunk of people who will stay away on purpose. I have a feeling there are even certain guests who might not come back (although, if you’ve got something to promote, it would be hard to stay away). Jay didn’t say a lot to hurt his reputation, but he also didn’t just walk away from the mess and give Conan the chance to rise or fall on his own merits (he would have been welcomed back a year from now had Conan continued to flounder ratings-wise).  Further, Dave Letterman ripping into Jay, claiming this was “vintage” behavior from the comedian, further sullies his reputation.

Dave Letterman — Dave benefitted from Jay’s departure to primetime, since Conan’s struggles resulted in a ratings boost for his show. With Jay coming back, some of those new viewers will likey return to their Jay roost. Some of Dave’s routines this past week were very funny, targeting ex-employer NBC as well as Leno, the man who stole the show that he had thought would be his birthright after Johnny Carson’s departure. At the same time, however, he may have come across seeming a little mean-spirited. In the end, he’s not host of The Tonight Show and he’s going to lose some viewers back to Jay. He does serve as an interesting model for Conan to follow though.

Jeff Zucker — OK, reputation-wise this man’s in a free fall. His programming acumen is in serious doubt. His handling of this entire situation has been lacking.  He is being lampooned throughout the media critic circles.  But he probably doesn’t care.

NBC — The network has seen better days.  I still remember when they ruled nearly every segment of television. They owned primetime, they owned news ratings, they were the leaders in sports.  And they had the venerable Tonight Show.  They’re no longer the network king of the hill, which is a shrinking hill anyway as a billion cable channels siphon off viewers left and right.

Jon Stewart etal — Alternatives like Comedy Central’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Colbert Nation with Stephen Colbert will continue to chip away at the networks.  They too, of course, will see ratings erosion as people turn away from watching live or recorded TV altogether to just watch clips online.  Jimmy Kimmel has a very specific audience, and I don’t think anything going on between Dave & Jay & Conan had an impact on him.  Jimmy Fallon and Craig Ferguson are on too late to matter in these discussions, unless someone were to be pushed back into a later slot (as was NBC’s suggestion for Conan).

In the final analysis, I’m not sure how much reputation matters in TV, especially the late night variety. But it’s fun to watch.  It was “reality tv” at its finest.  Like Survivor, its “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast.”  Jay might have suffered a reputational blow, but in the end he’ll still share some chuckle-inducing banter with guests and viewers and ride home on his Harley, knowing he won the game.