Is Conan the king of the night shift?
Most of Craig Ferguson’s audience was doubtless mystified when he used his opening segment to ridicule NBC’s press release proclaiming Conan O’Brien “the new king of late night.” But NBC is perhaps to be forgiven for spinning as fast — and as soon — as it can.In addition to its proclamation of Conan’s royalty, NBC placed a Los Angeles Times ad Monday — headlined “This is Big” — trumpeting how the latenight program “continues its legacy of late-night dominance,” which at the least sounds like a premature exclamation. From NBC’s perspective, though, this makes sense: Reinforce the impression that O’Brien is an unqualified success, anticipating that the media — famous for short attention spans — will grow weary of documenting every up and down of the latenight race. In O’Brien’s new town, claiming victory before the game’s over is as standard as setting cars ablaze once it officially ends. As for CBS, they’re also doing the smart thing PR-wise — appearing content to let NBC punch itself out now, waiting for the curiosity about NBC’s not-so-new kid to subside and, most significantly, the primetime tables to reset this fall. There is also a likelihood that the latenight competition will play out differently than David Letterman vs. Jay Leno, who were of the same generation. By contrast, it’s possible that CBS could attract more viewers overall while NBC holds its own or better among younger demographics, allowing the shows to coexist more peacefully than before. Since everybody’s still rolling in money, these latenight scuffles largely stemmed more from exec personalities, dick swinging and lingering ill feelings over the last “Tonight Show” baton pass, anyway. Besides, any press releases aren’t worth the emails they’re written on until Leno makes his debut at 10 p.m. At that point, there are three key scenarios and several related subplots, breaking down loosely as follows: Push: Leno does about the same rating that he delivered in latenight; NBC makes money, but it takes a hit competitively. Pull: Leno does better thanks to higher tune-in levels at 10 p.m., and NBC makes even more money. High fives all around. Plop: Leno does markedly worse than he did in latenight because of the tougher competition, and while NBC ekes by financially, it’s a clear failure. But that’s not all. Nobody knows what the ripples will be depending on how “The Jay Leno Show” does. In a best-case situation, having Leno leading into affiliate newscasts has no bearing on latenight. Worst-case scenario, NBC takes a drubbing that reverberates through local news and into “The Tonight Show.” O’Brien suffers, creating a double-whammy effect. What’s the fix in that situation? It’s virtually impossible to say, since reducing Leno to less than five nights a week would be awkward — and a flag-waving sign of retreat. For now, NBC is understandably eager to call the operation a success — saying that the Conan-to-11:30 transplant took — before any potential complications arise. Again, not a bad move given the inclination to draw snap judgments from incomplete information. That said, it’s wise not to order any gilded latenight crowns just yet — unless the headband is adjustable. * * * Speaking of Letterman, a brief note about his so-called “feud” with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, which initially took off because the media loves to combine pop culture with politics, then persisted because Palin proved so eager to hit back. First, a word about feuds: When a latenight comic or newspaper columnist jokes about public figures, they are not “feuding,” but rather doing their jobs. It only becomes a genuine skirmish when celebrities choose to retaliate. As Palin demonstrated in a “Today” interview, her nagging problem on the national stage is a speaking style resembling that of a terrible substitute teacher. It’s also pretty transparent that the Palin camp and her conservative defenders were spoiling for a fight against someone in the “liberal media.” In any sane world, Letterman’s gracious apology — which Palin accepted on Tuesday — should put the matter to rest, although Palin backers seem reluctant to let the matter die without somehow penalizing the host. Maybe they’re just eager to push around a tall skinny dude, hoping they’ll have more luck against him than this Obama guy.