Leno, Letterman buck youth obsession

As further proof that Hollywood excels at irony, the same week that older writers were awarded $70 million to dispense with an age-discrimination lawsuit, a comedian who’ll soon turn 60 uprooted a guy 13 years his junior as host of “The Tonight Show.”

In some respects, NBC’s decision to bet the farm on Jay Leno — even if that meant losing Conan O’Brien, who balked at a proposed compromise arrangement — does reflect a demographic watershed. Let’s not forget that the network opted to elbow Leno out back in 2004, postponing the baton pass to an eager O’Brien for five years. It did this in part because it was anticipated that Leno couldn’t keep packing the house with members of the key 18-49 age bracket when the deal expired, at which time he’d be a decade outside the hallowed demo. O’Brien, by contrast, fell squarely within it.

Instead, we now have two 60-ish dudes, Leno and 62-year-old heart-bypass survivor David Letterman, as latenight’s reigning one-two punch again — even if they’ve been squabbling like 16-year-olds. Letterman’s contract extends into 2012, or around his 65th birthday. And given Leno’s sudden lack of an inhouse heir (Jimmy Fallon? Don’t think so), NBC had better hope its once and future latenight king plans to continue his workhorse ways beyond Johnny Carson’s retirement age of 66.

There’s no precise corporate term for this scenario, but the closest would probably be “whoops.” Neal Gabler, one of the most astute cultural observers around, went so far in a Los Angeles Times piece as to call Leno’s return a “cultural milestone” and a repudiation of hip in favor of stodgy for “what may be the first time since 18-49 became the American grail” among advertisers.

Even after decades as TV’s principal currency, the emphasis on younger demos still sounds like gibberish to many within the business — a new agey way for everyone to claim a piece of being No. 1 by some arcane standard. During a NATPE session Monday paying homage to ABC’s “Modern Family,” co-stars Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell acknowledged that whenever execs or producers speak to them about the ratings, their exultation sounds like nonsense — pulling an “eleventy-seven” or something, as Burrell put it.

Juxtaposed with the writers’ settlement, however, Gabler’s latenight argument may go a bridge too far. Because while nobody ought to believe the networks, studios and talent agencies settled to make baseless nuisance claims go away — as they self-servingly suggested in announcing the agreement — there’s also scant reason to think this will fundamentally alter their practices.

Will gnarled old hands be welcomed back into writers’ rooms and asked to develop youth-oriented dramas after having been put out to pasture? It’s pretty to think so, to quote Hemingway (who had the good sense, from a career standpoint, to die at 61), but no one who’s watched the business for long would buy that kind of feel-good last act, even if you cast Sandra Bullock in it.

Nevertheless, the latenight situation does send a not-so-subtle message that at least in such rarefied company, exceptions can be made. Gray hair is still a turnoff, but maybe a talented older guy (or two) can be the best man for the job. That’s a breakthrough, given how blatantly the preoccupation with younger demos has disenfranchised much of the industry’s elder class.

But can we truly call this a sea change? The baby boomers’ revenge? Reason to sell short on Botox stock — or think the next Writers Guild Awards will resemble an AARP meeting?

Don’t bet on it. For now, anyway, what’s transpired in latenight is best viewed as an anomaly, driven by the dearth of people who have demonstrated the durability to reliably sustain a talkshow. Indeed, the image prevails of two aging prizefighters — trading jokes instead of jabs — motivated by their shared obsession with a venerable middle-aged TV franchise, one perhaps appropriately born way back in 1954.

So while older writers have fought hard for a measure of redemption — and deserve more respect than the industry has generally afforded them — when it comes to the media’s infatuation with youth, old habits die hard, too.

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