For NBC, the Discussion Happily Turns to Latenight

The focus on NBC over the next few weeks will be centered on latenight, with Jay Leno’s baton pass to Conan O’Brien at the helm of “The Tonight Show.”

Yet with that shift, it’s easy to overlook the network’s status in primetime and how its performance in those hours is interconnected with what transpires in latenight.

Obamaleno On Leno’s final show tonight (May 29), for example, the primetime lineup is an hour of “Howie Do It” followed by a “Dateline NBC” about what has seemingly become the favorite topic for newsmags — namely, whether some guy killed his wife.

Next week, the big tease to O’Brien is a two-hour revival of the former ABC show “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!,” followed by “Medium,” a series that jumps to CBS in the fall.

Unless NBC can prevail upon President Obama to become a permanent “Tonight Show” co-host, it’s difficult to overcome those kind of primetime lead-ins to late local news. Moreover, with Leno moving to 10 p.m. in the fall, the fate of O’Brien and his predecessor remain inexorably linked, making Leno’s departure less the end of a chapter (even one 17 years in the making) than simply the turning of a page.

Finally, there’s the David Letterman portion of the equation. Losing to Leno has always irked Letterman, and with the host having little left to prove in his career, it’s pretty clear he’d like nothing better than going out on top. With O’Brien expected to possess less widespread appeal than Leno and CBS seemingly destined to trounce NBC at 10 p.m., he has a golden opportunity to make that happen come September.

Latenight has always been a marathon, as opposed to a sprint. So while it’ll be interesting to see how O’Brien does getting out of the starting blocks — when his numbers will be fueled by curiosity — we won’t really know what to expect from the latenight race until all the pieces are in place later this year.

That won’t stop us media folk from pouncing on it, of course. But to quote Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, drawing any grand conclusions before “The Jay Leno Show” arrives will be for you to poop on.

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