Late Night Wars II, number four

Once upon a time, Johnny Carson presented the marriage of Novelty Singer Tiny Tim and … I don’t know the name of the woman he married.  This received enormous ratings, and for a long time was amongst the most viewed television programs in History.

I can’t say I liked Johnny Carson.  I do remember the first time I saw him, or the first time it registered that I saw Johnny Carson.  I was fascinated by the opening montage introduction.  I found Ed McMohn annoying.  I was left with no opinion of Karmac.  I haven’t the foggiest idea why I was up way past my bedtime — it was surely Summer time, perhaps the family had rented a movie.  Years later, I rented several “Best Of” tapes for the decvades.  I wanted to like Johnny Carson.  I really didn’t.

Reportedly there were years when NBC was down in the dumpster, and Carson’s massive ratings share carried the network, meaning the difference between profits and losses.  That was then, this is now.  Such a thing won’t happen again.  The NBC Executive’s line about “the complete failure of Conan O’brien” is, in that light, hilarious.  Even with his mediocre ratings, the network affiliates wouldn’t say “boo” about anything other than the situation in prime time, and the lead in to their local news broadcasts.  A more acute example of the situation is shown in that for two or three years, Conan O’brien survived off of the flimsiest and briefest of contract extensions, ready to oust at any minute and go the way of Chevy Chase, but an inertia of why anyone really cares about the ratings in late night fringe kept him through.

The story is well worn.  Up and coming comedians were talent scouted off of the LA Comedy Circuit and brought in for their shot at the Big Time on Johnny Carson, basically having one shot.  So it is there that Jay Leno bombed.  Which would have been the end of his rise to the Big Time, except for the Big Fan he had in the name of David Letterman, who made him a frequent guest on his show.
And the rest of the story is equally well worn.  Letterman would have been Carson’s choice for a replacement, and indeed, his two post-retirement appearances were on Letterman.  But, NBC made the correct call — which was born out after the Hugh Grant Hooker Apology Tour and Promotion of whatever Romantic Comedy he was pushing and that joke about the size of the movie’s promotional budget made by all of the late night hosts.  Curiously, you have to say in the end NBC had its first dibs, and CBS picked up the other desirable host.

Rationalization number N: the spokesperson for Conan O’brien referencing the Hugh Grant interview in proferring the way a Big Event can spur a permanent ratings jump — this in reference to Conan’s surge in the ratings.  Note briefly that he finally beat Letterman on Friday, and that Friday was once Dav’e best night, but became his Worst Night when he started taping those shows on Monday.  Nonetheless, I suspect Conan has Letterman beat for the duration of his Tonight Show stay — (even though, um, schedules are moot for me and anyone who watches television on the computer screen.)  This is a double edged sword — I suspect Conan may just have solidified and strengthened a large part of his core audience, but who knows what part of this is ephemeral?  Sure, watching Conan is now an example of sticking the middle finger out to “The Man”, “the man” being Jay Leno.  NBC made a weird decision in 2004 in giving Conan the Tonight Show, and thus Jay Leno the boot.  Things worked out such that their great fear of Conan O’brien bolting has been realized,m with the further prospectus that Conan’s name has been enlarged due to this controversy.

Odd items of familiarity.  Anyone remember the old “Intellectual Property of NBC” items?

Well, I think some of these things have been discarded already.  I don’t even really know that that NBC Executive who says his advice to Conan on broadening his audience really even had to tell him to put aside “The Masturbating Bear”, though it’s good to know that NBC will have him in storage for later use.  At stake in the contracts, apparently, is “Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog”, who may have ownership origins with the Robert Smigel Production company and thus might just be saved.  Can “In the Year 3000″ be changed to “In the Year 3333″ or something, ala the Letterman Experience with Larry Bud Melmohn Calvert DeForest?  I remember one thing, in the Letterman Experience, where he told “Hey!  I did not Invent itemizing lists of ten!”  Somehow Stupid Pet Tricks went on without a hitch, though I do know some things Letterman waited for NBC Inaction of a few years to unveal again (though for the life of me, I can’t think of them off the top of my head.)

I have a thought of clever stunt programming.  If Letterman really wanted to beat Leno in the ratings upon Leno’s return, he’d have on his guest that night… Conan.  That’s not going to happen, of course.

Sometime in the future, time slots will be meaningless.  I suppose they probably already are for high end cable programming, ala “Mad Men”.  Even the Mass Lowest Common Denominator programming of “American Idol” has this weird effect where I know through a form of pop cultural osmosis the “Pants on the Ground” song.  A special note about that program, it is the show which carries Fox to its number one slot.  The Conan spokespeople are already throwing out in their war of words that “Fox” is the “Number one Network”, as against NBC the “Number Four Network”.  Simon Cowell, the heart and soul of American Idol I would say, is leaving, and I suspect that this presages the end of the program’s Cultural Dominance.  Time churn about.

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