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Monday, January 11, 2010

The Tonight Show With....Um, We Don't Know

Growing up I would hear a familiar voice at 11:30. I would just be drifting off to sleep in my bed as Ed McMahon would say, “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” It was like Ed was tucking me in at night and offering me a last drink saying, “Heeeere’s Water!” This was the practice during the school year. I would stay up until the news came on, watching shows like St. Elsewhere, Trapper John MD, Fantasy Island. Hart to Hart, Matt Houston, Cagney and Lacey, and my favorite, Hill Street Blues. Each week I loved hearing Michael Conrad do the roll call and then end with, “Let’s be careful out there.”

But during the summer I would watch Johnny Carson after the news since I was allowed to stay up a little later. When I went off to college I switched to watching David Letterman as most kids at my age did. Of course, my brother watched him, too, when he was in college, but that was seven years prior, when Dave was on after Carson. Since then, I’ve pretty much stopped watching the late night comic shows, although I will catch Jimmy Kimmel on occasion, usually hoping to see This Week in Unnecessary Censorship because there is nothing funnier than censoring Mr. Rogers or The Muppets even if it’s not something that needs it.

Frankly, my television experience anymore consists of me living vicariously through my DVR and hoping I don’t max out my available space. I spend the late night show time slots catching up on shows that air during the times when I am giving my kid a bath or basically running around getting things ready for the next day. Still, I keep an eye on what’s going on with television so I can program accordingly.

I will admit that in college, I was an avid watcher of 10PM shows like Homicide, Law & Order and ER. But, after I graduated I sort of dropped off in watching them. Now, if there’s a show on at 10PM, I watch it the next day or on the weekend. But, for NBC, that is no longer a concern since they moved to having Jay Leno on at 10PM. To say I’m not a huge fan of Jay Leno is sort of true. I’ve never really taken to him outside of his stand up act years ago. He might be the nicest guy in the world but I really don’t care. What I do care is that NBC is trying to hold onto something that it can’t. Jay’s time with the Tonight Show was a great thing and it kept the late night staple going after Johnny Carson retired. I don’t think the show had the same impact as it did under Carson but it kept the money rolling in from every direction. Since it was time to hand over the reins to Conan O’Brien, what could NBC do to hold onto their Golden Goose?

So, they rolled the dice on axing their 10PM lineup and gave Leno that spot while letting O’Brien take over the Tonight Show. That didn’t pan out and now they are looking to shuffle the deck, again. But to what end? Is it fair to tell Conan O’Brien that he’s going to be bumped to after midnight? After all, if Leno is already tanking at 10PM, what will happen if they put him back on at 11:35PM and hope that the audience sticks around for Conan? Should they? Jay Leno without the Tonight Show is probably not as good and hoping he can gain the street cred back by making the show shorter and later seems like beating a dead horse.

That’s not to say that Conan is doing better with the mantle of Tonight Show host. His ratings have slipped, too. He’s not your mom and pop type host, but one that reaches the college kids who are still up at the late hour. Moving him to 11:35PM expects the general public to accept his style and hope that the audience will shift their viewing to earlier instead of being at the clubs. But remember, Dave Letterman went through the same growing pains in 1993. He initially took off running with the lead spot but after the O.J. incident and Hugh Grant’s appearance on The Tonight Show, he dropped from the top spot. Still, Letterman has consistently performed well and why shouldn’t Conan after he gets adjusted to his new slot?

I say if they really want to keep Leno around, bump him to after Conan. But NBC won’t do that. They’ll move Leno to 11:35 and bump Conan to midnight making the Tonight Show, the Tomorrow Show. Why? Because NBC wants to recoup their losses quickly instead of waiting for things to pan out. Also, if they get rid of Conan they owe a substantial amount of money. They can’t change the name of the show or risk having to pay him per his contract. And, if Conan gets courted by another network, he stands to lose, too. Leno is pretty much making it hard for everyone. He’s going to be the Brett Favre of late night. He just won’t go away.

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