One year later, the dust has settled on the whole Conan O’Brien-Jay Leno-NBC brawl, with O’Brien landing on TBS, Leno recapturing NBC’s “The Tonight Show” and the new latenight tableau coming into focus.
The revelation: no shortage of entertaining, even gutbusting humor across these and other latenight shows, but also schizophrenic audience numbers that in part reflect the danger of muddling a latenight brand. In other words, a canvas that is more Picasso than Monet.
“There is no latenight landscape anymore,” Kansas City Star TV critic Aaron Barnhart says. “It’s been compromised by audience fragmentation and time-shifting.
“Quality-wise, Conan certainly deserves an Emmy: His show is fresher, looser and more engaging than it’s been in years. But we’re starting to see the disparity between a general entertainment channel and a cable platform where the latenight product is totally on-brand.”
On the network side, NBC is still reeling from the effects of last year. Barnhart says Leno used to regularly top 4 million viewers a night and sometimes 5 million; now it doesn’t break 4 mil with any consistency.
“Honestly, I think Conan has been rendered irrelevant in this picture — the only meaningful thing that comes from the Conan-Jay debacle is a cautionary tale of messing with brands,” says one TV executive. “The instability of moving Conan to 11:30, and then moving him away, was so disruptive for NBC that Jay never really got his audience back.
“These networks will hold on dearly to what they have, make changes as slowly and prudently as they possibly can, and squeeze out the tens of millions of dollars they’re making off of these shows.”
It’s not as if CBS rival David Letterman is doing any better. The real problem for all the hosts, the exec says, is the advent of affordable DVR technology. Suddenly, latenight TV is competing with recorded episodes of everything.
“Jay’s in a particularly tough spot because Jay, weirdly, has never had cultural relevance,” the exec says. “He’s only had ratings. And those are going away.”
The one network show on an upswing is “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” like “Conan” an Emmy nominee. Fallon’s affable, goofy sensibility is a hit with younger viewers, and over the last year, he’s edged out CBS’ “Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” in both total viewers and eyeballs in the key demographic. And though Leno’s numbers aren’t “Buy another 10 cars”-worthy, they’re more sizable than Conan’s “Tonight Show” drew, and Fallon’s enjoying the runoff.
Fallon demonstrates a point that’s quick becoming an industry standard: Latenight material, like Fallon’s “History of Rap” songs with Justin Timberlake, can make the Internet rounds days, even weeks after they air. The Web is distilling the brand of a show into a series of scattershot clips.
O’Brien might not have the lion’s share of viewers, but his sketches are everywhere. He’s making more of an impact than old ratings systems would indicate.
“The lesson (from the Conan-Leno situation) is to keep looking to viewers,” says prexy Michele Ganeless of Comedy Central, home to zeitgeist-feeders and Emmy nominees “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report.” “Keep giving them the kinds of shows they want, on the platforms they want.
“Every network has to believe in the talent that they’re working with. And stand behind them. Otherwise, you shouldn’t be working with them.”
At the end of the day, Barnhart, like many TV critics, is bummed NBC made such a fear-based decision and didn’t leverage an opportunity to cement a brand of humor — on network, no less. Had Conan continued to precede Fallon, it’s possible the two younger-skewing hosts would have improved considerably in the key demo.
“As someone who was invested in the whole Conan-Leno thing,” he says, “this isn’t an entirely satisfactory ending.”
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