Late night TV can be just as cutthroat as any in the entertainment business. This became apparent during the late night dust up of 2009 when Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno went toe-to-toe over the 11:35 spot on NBC.
Five years earlier, in an effort to keep O’Brien, who was being wooed by the Fox network, in its late night stable, NBC promised the comedy host The Tonight Show gig, thus guaranteeing that the then host, Jay Leno, would step down. NBC executive, Jeff Zucker, who had made this promise, had yet to inform Leno that he was being forced into retirement. When the deal reached headlines, everyone in the business and TV viewers alike assumed Leno was voluntarily retiring. Leno himself didn’t dissuade anyone from thinking otherwise, which certainly explains why many were mystified when, in 2009, Leno jumped back into television with a 10:00 pm version of his former show. Even O’Brien was taken aback when he learned that yet again he was going to follow Leno. NBC, in fact, had persuaded Leno to do the show when it learned that ABC was sniffing around him to host a talk show on its network, possibly starting opposite both The Tonight Show and The Late Show with David Letterman (Nightline would have been a likely casualty had this deal gone through). Desperate not to lose Leno as well as their dominance in late night, NBC lured Leno, the perennial blue collar workhorse, back in front of the camera, even though he and producer Debbie Vickers were unconvinced that they’d be able to make the show work in that timeslot (clearly they could not).
If this all sounds like madness, it’s only because it is: the madness of a once hip, now struggling network trying to hang onto two of its late night stars. Their attempt to have their proverbial cake and eat it too blew up in their faces. They wound up losing Conan O’Brien anyway, all in an attempt to avoid an earlier contretemps between Leno and Letterman in their bids for The Tonight Show after the legendary host Johnny Carson retired. How this soggy mess came to be is the topic of Bill Carter's 2010 publication The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy. Carter wrote the bestselling The Late Shift, which likewise looked at the battle over who will ascend Carson to the late night throne. Carter does a good job in his latest book of showing that the battle over late night came down to more than just a matter of show business, but was also about the changing tides in both network and cultural trends. Whereas Leno was the safe comedian whose broad appeal spanned across the Midwestern markets, O’Brien was edgier, sillier, more about the essence of comedy than Leno who narrowed joketelling to a matter of quantification---the more jokes he could deliver during his monologue the better. It was also about technology. Leno routinely won large margins with the “over 49” crowd, while O’Brien hit the college age markets. This meant that O’Brien was keyed into all the trends that young people were engaged in---Twitter, Facebook---and knew how to put on a show that appealed to a crowd that was more likely to watch his greatest bits online than on television. This, unfortunately, didn’t always translate well ratings-wise. While O’Brien’s The Tonight Show regularly won this important demo, he was demolished by Letterman, who for the first time dominated in the late night ratings race. The older viewers who stayed through the local news for Leno, were now jumping ship for the Late Show. Leno’s entry into primetime television wasn’t making much waves, at least not the kind that make network executives happy. Before the year was out, network affiliates were screaming about lost crossover viewership and essentially twisted arms at NBC to make a final decision about Leno. Still determined not to lose both stars, Zucker suggested a move that would be the final break between O’Brien and NBC: move Leno back into the 11:35 spot for a half-hour and push The Tonight Show back to 12:05. O’Brien, more concerned with the maintaining the integrity of The Tonight Show institution, opted out of leaving the show altogether.
But (Jeff Gaspin, NBC executive) had also raised longer-term questions, including a most ominous one. He suggested that within five years NBC might not necessarily even be programming a Tonight Show, or anything else for that matter, in what the networks labeled the late-night day part. “While we have this heritage in the day part, you know, we also all used to be in daytime,” Gaspin said recalling the days when networks filled the daytime hours with soap operas, fewer and fewer of which were surviving. “We all used to be in Saturday morning programming,” he added, referring to the days when the networks made money on children’s cartoons. “The broadcast business is changing.”
In an age when online formats like YouTube and Hulu are gaining prominence, the future of network TV is up for grabs. How the networks (not to mention cable television) will deal with that remains to be seen. But if NBC’s handling of the Leno/O’Brien clash is any indication, odds are not very well.”