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Foreseeing latenight’s stormy future

We hate to say we told you so, but we told you so

It’s hell being right all the time. Being prescient occasionally, however, can be quite gratifying — such as the columns I wrote four years ago regarding Jay Leno’s and Conan O’Brien’s inextricably linked futures.

Two things inspired revisiting these pieces: First, TBS’ promotion for O’Brien’s talkshow, which premieres in November; and second, the quick cancellation of new dramas “My Generation,” “Outlaw” and “Lone Star” — with others teetering on the brink, like “The Whole Truth” — that are delivering ratings near or below what “The Jay Leno Show” was drawing around this time last fall.

Remember part of NBC’s rationale for the Leno experiment? Yes, the network might put up lower ratings at 10 p.m., but his program would be far cheaper to produce than hourlong dramas, especially those that get bounced after a couple of episodes.

Nobody needs to hold any bake sales for NBC U’s outgoing CEO Jeff Zucker, but even if he was naive about the perceptions fostered by throwing in the towel at 10 o’clock and the anger that would unleash among NBC affiliates and the production community — in failure, anyway — he wasn’t entirely wrong in the cost analysis.

So what did yours truly, alias Carnac the (Sporadically) Magnificent, have to say about all this back in October 2006?

“Ultimately, NBC’s goal of neatly settling its latenight future is a no-win scenario unless Leno triumphantly rides into the sunset after 17 years at ‘The Tonight Show’ helm.” And while Leno was being mum about his plans, “the smart money says that a comic who stacks 150 corporate and club dates on top of his ‘Tonight’ chores won’t be content to simply go headline at Caesars Palace.”

As for NBC’s determination to avoid the succession battle that played out between Leno and David Letterman in the early 1990s, “Some have even suggested that whoever’s in charge might get cold feet and opt to keep Leno where he is, biting the bullet on an eight-figure penalty payment to O’Brien.

“Far-fetched as that sounds, it’s not out of the question. Even O’Brien aficionados must concede there’s no guarantee he’ll bring the same broad appeal to the 11:30 hour Leno has enjoyed.”

Two months later, Letterman signed a contract extension, paving the way for the CBS host, I wrote in a second piece, to “reclaim the latenight crown he wore for three years … before relinquishing it to Leno.”

Much to the chagrin of O’Brien’s team, I also repeated reservations about NBC actually going through with the baton pass.

“The Peacock network shrewdly tucked all the kids into bed by formally anointing O’Brien the ‘Tonight’ heir two years ago, buying itself several years of profit and tranquility. (But) NBC could get cold feet and opt to keep its present host at 11:30, in which case O’Brien would surely jump elsewhere, collecting a fat penalty payment for his time. Some rival execs still see this as the likely outcome.”

Alluding to the Shakespearean aspects of these comics coveting Johnny Carson’s crown prompted this kicker: “No matter how this play concludes, it seems near-certain latenight’s next act will be deliciously messy. Because while the post-primetime hours feature plenty of jesters, there can only be one or two kings.”

Given the aggregated cost to NBC — tens of millions promoting Leno’s move, millions more rebuilding the timeslot with dramas, and still having to pay an estimated $45 million to settle up with O’Brien and his staff — that Variety subscription looks more and more like a bargain.

Of course, NBC never wanted to lose O’Brien, which explains the proposed if inelegant compromise that would have bumped him to midnight following a truncated half-hour Leno program. Still, as I stated four years ago about the key talent, “while the central players will all wind up in the chips, here’s a guess few of them will be completely happy once the dealing’s done.”

So what happens next in latenight? Sorry, Carnac is out of time. But check this space closer to O’Brien’s premiere for thoughts on latenight’s next chapter.

brian.lowry@variety.com

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