March 19, 2007 12:00 AM
Yes, it's months and months away, and speculating now about the outcome might seem foolhardy. But when dealing with a position of such immense power and influence, as well as one involving countless millions of bucks, it figures that people will be prematurely and restlessly inquisitive.
Of course we are talking about the approaching, epochal shift at the very tippy-top of the showbiz pyramid: Jay Leno's "decision" (cough, cough) to "step down" (ahem) as host of "The Tonight Show" on NBC so as to generously (yeah, right) make room for Conan O'Brien, brightest of the bright lights in the ‘round-midnight pantheon.
Conan is an irrepressibly nimble wit with such a bountiful red mane that he might be called, in this context, the Hair Apparent. But this is no time for levity (not that that qualified). This is about comedy, not laughs -- big time, high-profit comedy, with "The Tonight Show" earning NBC hundreds of millions a year and competitors thriving, too. There's money for all; even without Ted Koppel, ABC's "Nightline" prospers mightily. Published rumors do claim, however, that "Jimmy Kimmel Live," which follows "Nightline" on ABC, is hemorrhaging cash. Maybe, maybe not.
All eyes are not on Kimmel. They're on Leno, who had the embarrassing task, in September of 2004, of celebrating the "Tonight Show's" 50th anniversary by announcing plans to leave the anchor throne in 2009 so that O'Brien can take over -- a peaceful transference of power. When something like that happens, "it's always because somebody is threatening to leave," says one network veteran, and in this case, O'Brien is the threatener. Sick of waiting around for Leno to abdicate and clear the 11:35 spot, O'Brien through his representatives told the network to promote him or plan a "farewell, Conan" party.
So far, so good -- except that Leno, who basically has a pretty easy and hugely lucrative gig in the "Tonight" show, is reportedly having second, third and fourth thoughts. The prospect of going back on the comedy-club circuit can't be all that appealing, and Leno probably doesn't have the star power to fill huge arenas for comedy concerts in the style of Jerry Seinfeld or Robin Williams.
And so it will come to pass, as the big changeover date approaches: Leno will loudly entertain offers from ABC and from Fox, which aches to have a hit in late-night -- especially after spectacular failures with the likes of Joan Rivers and Chevy Chase. And NBC executives will wonder if they might be better sticking with a sure thing (in ratings terms), albeit a mediocrity, than making a change that might cost it viewers.
There'll be a hefty cost if NBC makes that choice, however. Everyone I talked to, while not wanting to be quoted, agrees there has to be a penalty clause in Conan's contract should NBC go back on its pledge of 11:35, and sources put that penalty as high as $40 million. Preposterous? No. "It has to be painful," one source says.
Over the years, Conan has made no secret of his admiration for Letterman -- he reveres Dave as an inspirational figure (one can see a lot of Dave, but also of Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen, in O'Brien's comedy). Meanwhile, through such ploys as a character called "Little Jay Leno" (a very short person with an oversize face and battering-ram chin), O'Brien ridicules Leno on the air. Team player that he says he is, Leno dutifully includes a quick plug for Conan at the end of every "Tonight Show," perhaps mindful of Tom Snyder's complaint that Johnny Carson never plugged Snyder when Snyder was following the Carson "Tonight Show."
Things could get ugly. Bill Carter of The New York Times may be getting ready to sign another book contract even now; "The Late Shift," his bestseller on the Leno-Letterman battle, later became an HBO movie. It was more fun as a film than as a book, maybe because turning this television saga into a television show was simply a better match of medium and message.
For whatever reason, the O'Brien show seems less festive lately. Craig Ferguson, who hosts the Letterman-produced "Late, Late Show" on CBS, is creeping up on Conan in the Nielsens, and such moments as a recent Ferguson monologue in which he talked, seriously, about his intention to stop making fun of Britney Spears (on the grounds that alcoholism is a disease, not a joke) earned him wide-spread admiration. Ferguson comes closest of the late-night troops to doing a talk show of the loftiest sort: a genuine televised conversation, not just a string of pat questions, wisecracks by the host and canned comments that guests have already supplied to producers during pre-interviews.
Carson, of course, though he clung to notes, had the ability to make everything seem unplanned and natural; he related to viewers as none of the current crop can do (on some nights, Letterman seems more interested in relating to his babbling bandleader, Paul Shaffer, than to we folks at home in television land, excluding the audience rather than taking it into his confidence).
On the other hand, Letterman can still cause more hilarious havoc than anybody else on television. No one outdoes him at turning misbehavior into bliss.
Some people may think that disproportionate amounts of print, including blog stuff, are devoted to late-night and early-morning television. Gossip about The "Today" show and its competitors always sells papers, or the equivalent of that, and it's much the same with stories about what's happening in the late hours. But it makes sense to pay more attention to these "dayparts," as they're called, because these are among the last surviving areas in which the networks still do Real Television -- "live" or almost, relatively spontaneous, aired as it happens or very soon after.
As if to acknowledge that, Shaffer's repertory for his little band includes several theme songs from TV's past: "Toast of the Town" from "The Ed Sullivan Show," homage to the Ed Sullivan Theater in which the show is taped; the "I Love Lucy" theme, universally recognizable; and "Everything's Coming Up Roses," which became the anthem heralding Jack Paar.
The late-night shows, and showmen who endeavor to keep America awake are also keeping network television alive. Get ready as the whole system is thrown into turmoil once again.