The history of the “Late Night Wars”

The ratings for Jay Leno’s 10:00 show were catastrophically bad; the ratings for Conan O’brien’s were merely bad.  I can say this because the 10:00 slot, “when all is said and done”, is more important to the affiliates.  The affiliates were in revolt about the 10:00 lead into 11:00, not the trailing off of the day into the wee hours of the night.  So, the first thing NBC had to do was get rid of the problem at 10:00.  Easily done by taking Jay Leno off that slot.  But once that’s done, there is still the problem of bad ratings at 11:30.  That’s easily solved by placing Jay Leno back there.

In 2004, NBC faced contract renewals with Jay and Conan.  It was easy to see Jay Leno as the Present, but also easy to see Conan as the Future.  But to hold onto Jay Leno as long as they could would entail the risk of Conan bolting to make his leap to an earlier time slot as soon as he could — who knows what offers might come up; David Letterman had triple by-pass surgery just a few years’ ago, after all.

NBC reached for “the future”.  That video everyone pounced on from Jay Leno in 2004?  He was, as he should, “giving the comapny line”.  After all, he still has to work this show for five more years.  I remember seeing that in 2004, and not believing him then.  For another example of a person in a similar situation, with a less amiably company-towing reputation, watch David Letterman on Johnny Carson in 1991.  And after he gives that spiel, a giant lie, he undercuts it by going on a riff about GE.  (Ah, back when Letterman was funny.)

The problematic thing NBC had with Conan’s ratings was that “The Future” wasn’t apparent.  The target age group, 18-35, was weaker than imagined.  Until that last week, when everyone who had grown up sneaking some viewing of Conan at 12:30 and who had been watching sparodic and occasional clips of Conan at 11:30 at youtube and hulu came around to watching the show.  And here is the next problem: what is the future of television, and do the network providers have it in themselves to adjust to the coming (and emerging) storm?

To defend Jay’s Oprah appearance, mocked here by Jimmy Kimmel — well, this is goddamned Oprah — that’s how everyone appears on Oprah, even for something as rather superficial as late night television contract negotiations.  Apparently there is 40 minute session with Oprah and the audience discussing this Jay Leno appearane available online, — a regular web added feature.  The mind boggles.

As for the “Late Night Wars” at Johnny’s retirement — Jay Leno is easily defended.  Curious to note, that all kicked off in 1990 when CBS made an offer for Jay Leno, which tells you what you need to know — there were two obvious choices for that 11:30 time slot, and NBC chose one of them.  Correctly, as it turned out, “post Hugh Grant”, though it’s hard to see it as turning out terribly for them even if Leno remained behind Letterman in the ratings — “lost revenue” being merely the opportunity costs of having not retained Letterman.

With Conan’s history, things get interesting.  I looked back into the news archives for some refreshals of things that may or may not have marginally impressed me at the time.  As we all know, Lorne Michaels — in charge of producing the replacement show for Letterman at NBC — picked Conan out of his writing staff at Saturday Night Live, a surprising selection of a complete unknown that came out of nowhere.  In hindsight, I see what was this thinking.  Clearly thinking ahead to possibilities –( if, perhaps, not probabilities) — and the possibilites of what is a “late night fringe” slot.  Eschewing the more seasoned performers being floated about and considered at the time — Dana Carvey, Dennis Miller, and Gary Shandling — who were, after all, about that age group as Leno.  Initially things looked horrible for Conan.  Reportedly the absolute low point for Conan’s morale came when he lined up a batch of radio call ins for show promotion, on a day that ended up with a Washington Post review that was blistering and scathing in the extreme.  One by one, each radio host had as the main focus of the interview the Washington Post review.  Conan grinned and beared it.  After the final interview, Conan then curled up into a ball under his desk for a spell.  Looking through the Washington Post articles, I’m positive this refers to something written by Tom Shales.  Perhaps his review entitled “GO GENTLY INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT, ALREADY ” — which, to be honest is a subpar title to the opening sentence “Hey, you, Conan O’Brien! Get the heck off TV.” .  “CONAN O’BRIEN NOT WORTH A HOOT TO THE NIGHT OWL” came too early in the run for it to be the one.  And a year-in television round up which lists Conan as a “FAILURES ABOUT WHICH THERE WAS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING NOBLE” is too short a snippet.

Three years later, Tom Shales comes around with “And Conan O’Brien, 33-year-old host of NBC’s “Late Night,” has gone through one of the most amazing transformations in television history.”  And “O’Brien survived a merciless drubbing when his show premiered in September 1993. Some critics, present company included, were excessively mean […]

At this point, Conan’s ratings matched Dave’s old ratings, though NBC’s contracts for him remained a tad hesitant.  During this early period, some names popped up as possible replacement for Conan.  NBC’s replacement of Bob Costas with Greg Kinnear (from E’s “Talk Soup) was seen as a possible avenue toward replacement.  Another name in discussion was this host of a new program on MTV who was receiving a bit of buzz, name of Jon Stewart.  No one pulled the trigger.  Curiously, Letterman’s selection of Tom Snyder for the 12:30 follow show seemed to give Conan some breathing space in not directly and in style challenging Conan.  I hesitate to wonder if this played a role in that choice, with some affection to a young struggling host he saw talent in.

It appears Jon Stewart was thought of as the obvious choice for replacing Tom Snyder.  In that light, Letterman’s appearance on the final show of Jon Stewart’s Paramount syndicated show, makes a bit of sense.  But they went with Craig Kilbourne instead.  Craig Kilbourne, who was the host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central.  Comedy Central then hired Jon Stewart, and you know the rest.

Things became really interesting when ABC nearly signed Letterman in 2002.   It happened in large part because CBS thought they had more leverage in their Letterman contract than they did, and so were lax in the timings of the negotiations for re-signing.  Dave eventually re-signed, probably not wanting his career to be seen as one of frequent network hopping, but also always very adament about not wanting to be viewed as driving Ted Koppell out.  During this contract spell, CBS started pursuing possible back up plans.  And it is here that the first thought ever came up that Conan might host a show at 11:30 and on another network, as per advice and preminitions offered here.  (Always keep a step or two ahead, I suppose.)  Conan hunched that he was being used as contract bargaining leverage, and disspelled the possibility quickly and re-signed a hefty contract with NBC, perhaps the first contract of full throttled support from NBC.

And… you know the rest.

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