Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Conan vs. Jay Leno vs. NBC

TV critic Aaron Barnhart joined me again today -- this time on WHAS/Louisville -- to discuss the latest in the ongoing Conan O'Brien/Jay Leno story, including the remarkable statement that Conan released yesterday, in which he said he refused to take part in "the destruction" of the legacy of "The Tonight Show" by moving it back a half hour.

Aaron explained the implications of Conan's statement, why Fox would want him even though he didn't pull in big enough numbers at NBC, and how other late night hosts are now treating Jay like the bad guy (or, in David Letterman's case, finally publicly expressing his dislike for Jay after all these years).

If it shakes out that Conan's off the air and Jay gets his old show back, it'll be interesting to see if NBC can regain the lead in that slot against David Letterman. Unlike Aaron, I've never been a big Conan fan, and never thought his taking over "The Tonight Show" was going to work. Nor was I a huge Jay fan. While I admire the guy's work ethic, his interviewing skills were never very good, and I only connected with his monologue because my friend Jon Macks has been writing jokes for Jay since he took over the show in 1992.

I have always been a Dave fan, back to the days of his morning show, because he's the only real broadcaster in the bunch. As he's done so many times before -- after his illnesses, or 9/11, or the John McCain cancellation, etc. -- Letterman has been doing some of his best work this week, with some funny and brilliantly incisive comments about the mess at his old broadcast home. Similarly, Jimmy Kimmel stepped up big time when he did his entire show last night as Jay Leno, complete with big chin, wig, and high-pitched voice.

As others have pointed out, there's no life-threatening consequence to this battle between millionaire TV hosts, but it's the most intriguing show business story in a long time. And for some of the participants who went through the original version of this squabble, the sequel must be bittersweet.

Johnny Carson's name gets thrown around a lot whenever late-night television is discussed, because he owned that daypart with a vengeance for so long. In his statement, Conan mentioned that, as a boy, he watched Johnny host "The Tonight Show" and dreamed of someday doing it himself. But Conan is overlooking something very important, and may need a history lesson.

In Bill Carter's "The Late Shift," there's a story about Letterman having lost "The Tonight Show" to Leno, but then possibly having a chance to get it back if and when NBC fired Jay. Letterman told his associates that getting Johnny's show was the pinnacle of the business and the only thing he wanted. Peter Lassally (the wise man who had helped guide Johnny's show, Dave's show, and now Craig Ferguson's show) had to remind Dave that it was no longer Johnny's show that Dave could inherit -- it was Jay Leno's "Tonight Show," which wasn't the same thing.

Someone needs to remind Conan of that.

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