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Now That Leno Has Landed, What's Next? Some Thoughts...
December 10, 2008  | By David Bianculli

Now that Jay Leno has landed -- and landed at a surprising place, in prime time on NBC -- the other players in the late-night wars of 2008-09 can begin planning their moves...

DAVID LETTERMAN: His option is whether to wind down and ride into the sunset when his contract is up next year, or extend his CBS Late Show hosting chores for one year, or two years, or more. Staying put makes sense, especially for a one-year extension, to see whether audiences shift at all when it's Dave vs. Conan rather than Dave vs. Jay at 11:30. But going out on your own terms is what Dave's idol, Johnny Carson did, so that's got to be an attractive option as well.

CONAN O'BRIEN: He said yesterday he's thrilled that Leno is staying in the NBC family, but he can't be happy that Leno will take not only much of his thunder, but some of his guests. Still, Conan is locked in to inherit The Tonight Show next year -- and for any talk-show host, that's a dream come true, regardless of what happens next.

JIMMY KIMMEL: If ABC hires someone else for an 11:30 ET talk show and asks Kimmel to remain at 12:30, that may be enough to get Kimmel to walk -- but to where? Fox and syndication are two options, but they're also options for other players, ones that may have more of a shot at widespread appeal. And if Kimmel moves earlier, does his show have to soften to fit the time slot?

CRAIG FERGUSON: Of all the talents currently in play on broadcast TV, this Late Late Show CBS host is the one with the brightest future, whatever he does. His show Monday night, saluting his recently deceased mother, was another of those raw, honest TV moments that make you love the guy. On a TV Sincerity Index from 1 to 10 -- 1 being the always ironic Conan, 10 being the late Fred Rogers -- Ferguson, like Letterman, can hit 9s and 10s when he chooses to. It's a great, rare gift, exemplified early and often in late night by Jack Paar, and Ferguson should continue to grow wherever he's planted.


He's also got reasons to both stay and leave, with his contract up next year as well. If Letterman calls it quits, or signs for one final year, then staying at CBS and shifting to the earlier time slot might make sense to Craig. If Letterman signs up for a longer haul, then checking the other waters is an obvious Plan B. He'd be a good fit at Fox, and a good bet to lure more viewers than Jimmy Kimmel in an 11:30 slot at ABC.

JIMMY FALLON -- Late night's other Jimmy, whose show in NBC's current Conan slot begins March 2, would seem to be another loser in Leno's prime-time shift -- but I don't necessarily think so. His guest bookings are bound to be markedly different, and Fallon is young and savvy enough to use new technology and communication streams to build audience loyalty in ways no other TV host has, or could.

Leno got all the attention with his announcement, but Fallon's nightly videos began being offered this week on his website. In the first, he introduced his house band, The Roots. In the second, he showed off the miniature model of his new set -- showing it excitedly to website viewers as he was seeing it for the first time.


No one's ever done that before in late night. And doing something new, and being enthusiastic about it, is what created and propelled late-night TV in the first place. So Jimmy Fallon, even as the third NBC talk show every weeknight, shouldn't be counted out prematurely.

The victory in the next round of late night wars, after all, might not be claimed on the battlefield of broadcast TV ratings -- but on who gets the most website hits and views. By building his audience online in advance, Jimmy Fallon may be planting his flag in just the right place.




curtis said:

First off, I just don't care to watch Jimmy Fallon. Didn't on SNL and certainly won't when Craig Ferguson is so good.

I don't know if it still holds but it used to be that Nightline got better ratings than Jay and Dave's first half hour. I watch Nightline fairly regularly and when Jay and Dave's guests were people I didn't care about I went right to Jimmy Kimmel whose first half hour is often pretty funny and then I would switch to see a musical guest on one of the other shows.

Conan O'brien owes almost everything he does to Steve Allen and the original Tonight Show. Anyone who has seen Steve stand up at a podium and recite rock'n'roll lyrics with a straight face or conduct man-on-the-street interviews with Tom Poston knows this. O'brien's goofiness will continue a great history in the 11:30 slot. My hope is that he will stay in New York. Here in the midwest I have trouble staying up late enough to catch him all the time and it's problematic having to switch between his sophomoric humor and
Ferguson's who is also so good he sometimes makes me laugh out. Having O'brien move to the earlier time slot is, for me, a good thing.

I take Leno in small doses because I think Letterman's has always been the best variety/talk/late show and have since the very first time I saw Dave when James Brown was the only guest - whew! I'm all for Letterman sticking around for a few more years. Not having satellite or cable however, a 9:00 pm (CST) Leno will be a welcome alternative to 20/20, 48 Hours Mystery and reruns on the digital stations in my southern Wisconsin area so while I might not watch him every night I would probably catch him a couple of times a week. If he brings more political folks on a regular basis, gets rid of the animal acts and continues with live music acts five nights a week I think NBC wins. Not only economically but it will still be some of the best programming on network. Maybe he can be convinced to do the occasional actual live show.

Comment posted on December 11, 2008 9:45 AM

123 said:

In this viewer's humble opinion...it's ridiculous to even compare Conan with Dave. David Letterman is ten times the host that Conan is. Johnny was the King, Dave is the master, Jay was decent, and Conan can be almost painful to watch. I'm a newspaper reporter, former actor, and have years of comedy training at Chicago's 2nd City (home of most SNL legends). I also used to do stand-up. I don't say this to impress (it's not that impressive), just to say that this discussion is close to home for me. Trust me...among people who do these types of things as a career, Dave is very, very well respected and Conan is considered by most to be near pathetic. Watching Conan conduct an interview is almost painful. After 17 years of late night, Conan still seems nervous, is unable to control the flow of the interview, has been making the same jokes for over a decade (his hair, for example), and often makes his guests have to work to have a smooth conversation. In contrast, Dave can make anyone from a young athlete to a sexy actress (Julia Roberts gave him a huge smacker on the lips recently), to a politician feel at ease. Dave is likely a better late night talk show host than Conan and Jay combined. Jay has his merits (good writers), but also has many weak points. Conan's entire show is pretty darn weak...filled with mindless, childish skits and almost uncomfortable interviews. Watch Conan conduct an interview, then change the station and watch Dave conduct an interview. It's like night and day. Johnny would be ashamed, I think. Dave is clearly a more intelligent and engaging personality than either Jay or Conan. Long live The Late Show, starring David Letterman!!!

Comment posted on June 19, 2009 10:09 PM
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