It was shocking to see a press release from NBC this week with the headline “Conan the new king of late-night.”
It was a ratings release, issued Thursday — the day each week when national Nielsens for the previous week’s late-night shows come out. The release ballyhooed Conan O’Brien’s performance in the ratings during his inaugural week.
Well, it’s easy to take issue with the way TV networks spin ratings results. But I’m not going to go into that here, for the simple reason that the ratings for that week, when many people no doubt sampled Conan’s “Tonight Show” out of curiosity, do not, in a sense, tell the real story of how this ratings race between Conan and David Letterman will ultimately play out in the coming weeks, months and years.
What struck me was that bone-headed headline. For one thing, if the ratings for this week — the numbers coming out next Thursday — reveal Letterman in first place, which is entirely possible, then Conan is then to be saddled with the embarrassment of presiding over the shortest reign of any late-night “king” in the history of television.
Even more important is the traditional way in which the word “king” is used in late-night.
Years ago, when I was TV editor at the New York Post, we used to cavalierly refer to Jay Leno, at the time when he was pulling ahead of Letterman, as the “late-night king.” It wasn’t that we loved Leno so much; it was meant more as a dig at Letterman, for which I hope Letterman forgave us long ago (if he was even aware of it).
Over the years, though, Leno was very clear about the use of that phrase. He would tell interviewers — whether or not he was being falsely modest — that he’s no late-night king. Johnny Carson was the king of late-night, Leno was always careful to say, and always will be.
Well, someone should review this tradition with the publicists at NBC who have crowned Conan O’Brien the “king of late-night” after a single week — a week, in fact, when he lost something like half his audience by the time the week was over.
So far in his role as the new host of “The Tonight Show,” Conan is many things. He is self-conscious to a fault, awkward and nervous. His “Tonight Show” is the most self-referential version of the show in its history. More than any other time, it’s really a show reflecting its host’s tastes and mannerisms — in reality, it’s “The Conan O’Brien Show” in the “Tonight Show” time period.
Who knows what the future holds for Conan O’Brien, but it will be years — if ever — before he, or anyone else, takes the title of late-night king away from Carson.