Mr. O'Brien's refusal to move his "Tonight Show" to 12:05 p.m. to accommodate Jay Leno's faltering show in the 11:35 p.m. slot is just the latest salvo in what is turning out to be a titanic struggle for NBC.
It is about what to do about plummeting ratings for “The Jay Leno Show” at 10 p.m. It is a bid to help NBC’s many affiliates, whose 11 p.m. newscasts have been losing advertising dollars because of Mr. Leno's dreadful ratings. And, increasingly, it seems to be about the future of late-night television itself.
When 'The Tonight Show' isn't 'The Tonight Show'
In a 552-word statement that opens, “People of Earth,” O’Brien wrote:
“For 60 years the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting."
Many industry analysts have suggested that time slot is no longer important in the DVR era, but O'Brien said moving “The Tonight Show” to the next day is tantamount to redefining the entire late-night real estate.
Speculation has swirled that Fox has been wooing O’Brien, but executives at Fox denied any such overtures on Monday, and O’Brien himself indicated that he has no plans in the works. NBC declined to comment on O’Brien’s statement or any ongoing negotiations.
Conan O'Brien O'Saurus?
While NBC and its roster of late-night hosts squirm, media analysts are watching the situation to see what impact it might have on television.
To some, the answer is: not much. The viewing preferences of young Americans have already shifted, leaving both Leno and O'Brien behind, says Arthur Gallego, an image and branding consultant at Gallego & Co. Brand Communications.
“Late night talk shows cater to a very fragmented audience, with the younger viewers tuning in later, or opting for shows like 'The Daily Show,' or 'The Colbert Report,' " says Mr. Gallego. “Neither Leno nor O'Brien can match the relevance or wit of either of those programs, and they know it."
"That's what makes this shake-up so high profile," he says. "Leno and Conan were already pop culture dinosaurs, and this only reinforced that.”
Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media," adds: “Conan O’Brien may be taking a noble stand but it’s on a sinking ship."
Drama from a lack of dramas
Yet other commentators suggest that NBCs late-night crisis has emerged precisely because many viewers still do have traditional expectations about their TV schedules, even in the DVR era. Viewers are “still creatures of habit” and expect more substantial content than Leno delivered at 10 o’clock, says DePauw University’s Jeff McCall.
“They like watching late night comedians late at night and not earlier in the evening when they have been programmed for 60 years to see scripted dramas," says Professor McCall. "NBC should have known that breaking this sort of mold was highly risky."
Moreover, neither O’Brien nor Leno performed up to snuff in their new slots for the past six months, says Robert Thompson, a media expert at Syracuse University. But he suggests that the troubles of late-night talk-show hosts are not insignificant.
“These comedians are our cultural commentators, and so they matter in the same way that news anchors do,” says Thompson, adding: “they set a tone for our civic dialogue.”
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