Can late night shift survive?

NBC's Conan manuever triggers uncertainty

In retrospect, this was a lousy time for the networks to mess around with the world of latenight TV.

Given the economic upheaval, people are discombobulated enough without having to assimilate new nocturnal TV habits. Relating to a latenight host is like marriage: It’s a 20-year commitment; witness Carson or Letterman or Leno.

NBC’s passion to keep Conan O’Brien is arguably to blame for all this. It triggered Leno’s projected move to the 10 p.m. slot, the arrival of Jimmy Fallon and who knows what else? Indeed, watching Fallon perspire through his new show last week reflected the discomfort of the sleep-deprived TV audience at large.

Fallon compounded his problems by selecting Bobby De Niro to be his first interview, which is akin to inviting Rush Limbaugh to Havana. De Niro is a great actor but, as any booker can tell you, he don’t talk good.

To be sure, Leno hasn’t projected his guest list for his new show (which starts in the fall) nor given clues to his new format, but viewers will be expecting a lot. The basic rhythms of latenight TV date back to the Neolithic era of Steve Allen and Jack Paar, and tampering with them can be dicey (think of the list of extinct latenight hosts, ranging from John McEnroe to Whoopi Goldberg).

Latenight talkshows always start with the monologue — Johnny Carson made it a national pastime — then come the behind-the-desk interviews, followed by the occasional stunt or impersonation. It’s all a formula, and Leno, for one, has held to it rigidly. Guests are admonished to stick to their script (or semi-script), built on a personal anecdote.

Interviewing has never been a Leno strong point, and competition for high-profile guests doubtless will become even more frenzied. Last week the guest list on latenight shows covered the spectrum from Rachel Maddow to Bob Newhart, from Charles Gibson to Wolfgang Puck.

Clearly the new Leno show will have to offer more variety — (will we see the ghost of Ed Sullivan?) — but the network suits aren’t talking other than to say that budgets will be down and ratings up (they hope). Primetime TV has plunged a long way in the four decades since “All in the Family” commanded a 30.5 rating on CBS, not to mention that golden moment when 83% of the households in America were fixed on Elvis’ debut on the Sullivan show in September 1956.

NBC knows that Leno, its Standup Stalwart, won’t register miracle ratings, but Leno is not alone in the pressure cooker: O’Brien has had a 16-year cruise following “The Tonight Show,” and now he’s got to do some serious reinvention.

Lorne Michaels, the patron saint of latenight who first plucked Conan, now insists that Fallon is unique in that “he’s actually interested in the subjects his guests are talking about.”

Last week Fallon bravely peppered De Niro with questions (and elicited one-word answers). Fallon seemed grateful, at last, when Justin Timberlake tried mimicking other pop singers, and he was rewarded by his prize “get” of ex-colleague Tina Fey the following night. But even Fey seemed desperately under-utilized – their conversation fell as flat as his monologue (Jimmy Kimmel struggled through Charles Gibson while Craig Ferguson was cooking with Chef Puck).

“Latenight television hosts are judged on durability,” wrote Brian Lowry, Variety‘s TV critic. So will the audience be willing to go the marathon with Fallon? Or, for that matter, with Conan and the new Jay at 10 p.m.?

Perhaps, but it will require some shifting of habits, and Americans these days seem grumpy about their habits.

Too much is already changing across our landscape and it’s all taking place too quickly. Maybe latenight should have been allowed to stay put for a while.

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