By Josef Adalian
What do Conan O’Brien, David Letterman and the Iraqi people have in common? All are involved in wars they didn’t create — and probably wish would end as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, while there’s at least the hint of a timetable for U.S. troops to pull out of Iraq, there’s no sign the folks behind the never-ending Late Night War will ever raise a white flag. War has become the natural state in the post-primetime universe, and an entire industry has risen up to ensure the continuation of conflict amongst all those who dare host a late night talk show.
The war hawks in question are not the network executives who risk tens of millions on the Lettermans and O’Briens of the world. Nor do the hosts themselves seem all that invested in the ups and downs of the battle these days (though Craig Ferguson’s frequent, brown-nosed bashing of NBC targets suggests he might relish the game).
Those of us who write about the entertainment business, however, are a different matter. We’ve got blood on our hands.
Desperate to hold on to a 20-year-old narrative, the reporters who cover television have convinced ourselves that the men who host TV shows between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. are all locked into some sort of death race, one whose outcome will determine the rise and fall of entire networks.
We’ve been engaged in a real war in which most Americans never saw the true cost of battle due to a government ban (recently lifted) on showing images of body bags and coffins.
But in the War on Late Night, every miniscule bit of data generated by Nielsen is deemed worthy of dissemination, dissection and debate.
Conan’s up! No, he’s down! Here comes Dave! Wait, Conan’s back up again! Don’t forget the demos! Can’t trust those household numbers! The panic!
Oh, dear Lord, THE PANIC!
Late night also provides TV beat reporters the chance to engage in the sort of wild and generally inane prognostication and punditry normally the exclusive domain of our peers who cover Washington.
We don’t just predict who will win the nightly, weekly and annual ratings battles. We feel compelled to identify which executives will allegedly lose their jobs over the outcome of the War, or how the financial future of their networks will be fatally impacted by who wins or loses at 11:35.
Like William Randolph Hearst and the Spanish-American War, those of us who cover the TV business are far too willing to continue pumping up a fight that, in truth, was settled more than a decade ago. We just can’t let go.
Like any good myth, the late night epic is rooted in some ancient truth.
Back in the early 1990s, David Letterman and Jay Leno truly were blood enemies. The stakes were real as both men fought to fill the financial and cultural void left by the retirement of the one and only King of Late Night, Johnny Carson. (Please bow your heads for a moment. Thank you.)
But well before the decade was over, their late night grudgefest quietly resolved itself, ending in a draw. Leno became late night’s profit center, while Letterman (and, later, Jon Stewart) became the hip hangout Carson’s "Tonight Show" was in the 1970s. Reporters didn’t even bother to report the ratings results, even when Dave sometimes passed Jay on a random night or two.
The era of peace in late night seemed cemented five years ago when NBC took the unheard-of step of announcing a long-term succession plan for "Tonight." Late night power would shift peacefully from Leno to O’Brien; no more blood would be spilled.
The warmongers wouldn’t hear of it, though.
As much as Leno tried to insist he was OK with what was happening — even going so far as to stay with the network that allegedly forced him out of late night — TV biz reporters wouldn’t rest until there was drama.
You furnish the jokes, we told the late night hosts. We’ll furnish the war.
And so, in the past couple of years, the narrative of conflict in late night rose again. Leno was regretful, O’Brien was nervous, Jeff Zucker was desperate—or so it would seem reading the countless stories written about the Jay-Conan baton-passing.
I don’t mean to come off as naive. There are plenty of egos and agendas at play in late night, and the folks involved aren’t above saying one thing in public and another when the tape recorder is turned off.
But bitchiness and a little backstabbing does not an all-out war make. Trust me, there’s plenty of behind-the-scenes madness going on right now in the writers’ rooms of half the shows in primetime. Network executive suites are filled with more dysfunction (and staff turnover) than you can shake a stick at.
And yet I don’t see anyone covering the War of the Crime Drama Showrunners.
In case it’s not entirely clear, I count myself as part of the problem.
My TVWeek.com blog, TV MoJoe, has been in full-on War mode for weeks. I’ve tried to take a comic tone — calling it the War on Late Night — and yet I’ve also written nearly two dozen posts about Jay, Dave and Conan since late April. We won’t even discuss my deep dive into the frizziness of O’Brien’s hair.
All of us who cover television, as well as those who simply enjoy watching it, need to take a step back and realize that Dave and Conan and Jon and Primetime Jay aren’t really involved in a grudge match. They’re all competitors, sure, but not much more so than the casts of "CSI" and "The Office."
And as far as the ratings go, the hysterics must halt. There’s nothing wrong with reporting the numbers, even on a daily basis. Networks and advertisers are looking at them; readers who care have a right to know.
But how about a little context, and proportionality? Caveats and explainers may be "old school" journalism, but in reporting on late night, they’re essential.
Letterman, after all, was beating Leno in the early days of their initial showdown. Even after Jay pulled permanently ahead in the ratings, it’s not as if the Kingdom of Dave crumbled. CBS didn’t begin a search for a replacement; instead, they kept giving Letterman rich three-year deals.
The same is true today. I don’t know whether Conan or Dave will have more viewers, or more demographically appealing viewers, a year from now. Four years hence, I’m not even sure both men will still be hosting a late night program. The way things are evolving in TV, who knows if the notion of a late night daypart will even exist not long from now?
Of one thing, however, I am certain: It’s time to put aside the idea of an ever-raging late night rivalry. There’s enough fiction on TV already without reporters who cover TV creating imaginary storylines of our own.