Late-night television has never been slowed down by controversy or audiences abandoning it by the same means. Dust has always settled fast on anything that ruffled feathers by a talk show host, despite the feathers ruffled being inevitably more on the host himself. The viewing public, overall, has 50 long years of forgiveness and forgetfulness for late-night TV–from Jack Paar’s infamous “Tonight Show” walk-off in 1960 to David Letterman’s recent sexual peccadilloes.
And in the eleven months since Conan O’Brien was forced to leave “The Tonight Show” for the returning emperor Jay Leno on NBC, I’d wager that half of the people bothered by it then think it a mere trifle at this point if even removed from the mind.
Well, that is unless that Twitter page called Team CoCo still has a long list of loyal names.
When Conan O’Brien started his new late-night TBS show “Conan” on November 8, the curious viewers and fans were unsurprisingly there in spades ahead of Leno and Letterman. But the possible scenario months afterward is one thing that TV viewers can’t ever seem to shake: The habit of watching things at certain places and times.
Conversely, the one thing that unfailingly does get in the head of a regular TV viewer is that TBS is still a final resort choice for TV watching at any time of the day. If you happened to exist during the 1980’s when TBS was one of only a small number of cable channels available on your cable system, chances are you switched there to watch reruns of old sitcoms and movies when nothing else was on. All these years later, TBS is virtually the same in their programming amid infinite alternatives, though slightly more repetitive in re-showing the same three movies.
Based on Nielsen numbers for late-night shows before “Conan” started, few people in America had the habit of turning over to TBS to watch “Lopez Tonight” when stacked up against all the usual over-the-air choices. Ever since George Lopez was taken out of his sitcom element and into the world of mediocre, cookie-cutter late night variety, it’s clear that most viewers still have allegiance to the big networks when it comes to searching out the biggest laughs and buzz.
Whether or not you want to believe that Twitter campaigns helped Conan O’Brien gain huge debut numbers, curiosity is always going to override everything. Especially after a controversial situation, a new show reviving a star with that background is going to have an explosion of huge numbers as it’s been from the time controversy made it to TV. After that comes the continual need of the viewing public to spread the viewership around and to uphold my theory that no late-night show is watched regularly to exclusively enjoy the host.
The big numbers are ultimately about controversy and who the guests are.
There also seems to be a requirement in the late-night world since the Johnny Carson age ended for musical chairs to take place with the hosts when things go inevitably awry. “Conan” may be giving many in the O’Brien camp peace, though don’t necessarily expect to see peace reign in the other regions of the late night metropolis.
In fact, it may get downright volatile again if “Conan” sustains a high rating.
Despite my allusion to viewer habit eventually withering away at “Conan”, cable has become the unpredictable atom that we think does one thing and does another. Based on Conan O’Brien’s first week of shows, the edgier aspect to the show compared to the other networks may create some form of longstanding allegiance as HBO has. We only have to look ahead less than a year to see the chain reaction if “Conan” cuts into Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman, Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Kimmel.
Cut to a secret meeting with Jay Leno and NBC execs after eleven straight months of being either beat by Conan or David Letterman. The emphasis, however, is on Conan winning most nights for TBS and the double problem of “Conan” re-running his 11 p.m. show at 1 a.m. NBC execs tell Leno that they intend to start re-running Leno’s “Tonight Show” from that night again at 1:00 a.m. to compete with the Conan rerun. In usual perplexing fashion, NBC execs think Jimmy Fallon can’t compete with the Conan rerun and will soon ask him to do a 25-minute show from 12:35 to 1:00 a.m. Monday through Thursday to make way for the Leno rerun.
Jay Leno agrees to go along with it as long as execs don’t blab that he approves. When Jimmy Fallon finds out, however, he reacts using a technique Conan once taught him: Scream into the phone and slam it down as hard as you can. Fallon’s contract is almost up anyway and wrangles a deal with TBS to follow Conan over on TBS. This in turn makes Leno get out while he still has his chin. Leno issues a statement that he’ll be retiring.
With NBC in a panic, they wave a huge check at Craig Ferguson who’s been impatiently waiting to take Letterman’s slot over at CBS, despite Dave signing on for another year. Ferguson decides to take “The Tonight Show” spot with intention of doing the same naughty show he’s done on “Late, Late Show.”
In the meantime, Fallon following “Conan” on TBS instigates a seethe from George Lopez. Lopez gets an offer from ABC to fill the slot where Jimmy Kimmel has been. ABC execs just now received memos showing that Kimmel has been wasting time in that slot for the last decade. Lopez gives a press conference saying he’s grateful to get another show where no execs will notice him for the next ten years. He’s also given a lozenge by TBS as a parting gift.
NBC, incidentally, decides to cancel Carson Daly’s “Later” and puts in a nightly three-hour block of “Poker After Dark” after “The Tonight Show with Craig Ferguson” ends at 12:35 a.m. CBS decides to show “Abbott & Costello Theater” in the now-canceled “Late, Late, Show” slot.
Now that a new late-night landscape is set, Conan manages to barely win over Ferguson. Ferguson sweats it out with the NBC censors over his more M-rated show. After a year, he tires of dealing with censors and decides to vacate late night to go back to an acting career. NBC panics again and waves a big check at Conan still toiling at TBS…
Yes, Conan gets “The Tonight Show” back. Nobody told him, though, that David Letterman signed a secret deal with NBC to take over “The Tonight Show” in about six months after 20 years at CBS.