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As Leno Moves to 10 p.m., New Chapter in Late-night Begins

May 29, 2009 at 6:50 PM EDT
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As NBC's Jay Leno prepares to pass "Tonight Show" hosting duties to Conan O'Brien and launch a new talk show, a newspaper television critic mulls the future landscape of late night television.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a big shift in late-night television.

Jeffrey Brown is back with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s the end of an era this evening, as Jay Leno sits for the last time behind the famous “Tonight Show” desk. Leno took over for Johnny Carson 17 years ago, and the late-night comedy staple has been a ratings hit for NBC almost that entire time.

The Leno-style monologue was on display on the night President Obama was a guest.

JAY LENO, Host, “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno”: A lot of people were surprised that the president came to NBC. You would think, by this time, he would be tired of big companies on the brink of disaster with a lot of overpaid executives.

JAY LENO: But, no, no, he’s here.

JAY LENO: I tell you, you can’t believe the security here today. Well, you — you saw it coming in. I mean, I went through two metal detectors, a full body search, a scan, and then a pat-down. And that was just for Garth Brooks, OK?

JAY LENO: I didn’t even meet — I hadn’t even met…

JEFFREY BROWN: NBC has carefully choreographed the succession, passing the baton to the man whose show aired right after Leno each night, Conan O’Brien, known for a quirkier brand of humor, something he acknowledged during the final taping of his talk show in February.

CONAN O’BRIEN, HOST, “LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O’BRIEN”: It’s an incredible, amazing honor to do this program for you people.

And I want to say something about — we’re going on to this next gig. And, sometimes, I read that it’s time for Conan to grow up because he’s going to 11:30. And, I assure you, that’s just not going to happen.

CONAN O’BRIEN: I can’t.

CONAN O’BRIEN: This is — is who I am, for better or worse.

Leno moves to prime time

JEFFREY BROWN: In a television twist, Leno is not leaving, but moving. In the fall, he will start a new show that will air nightly, but in prime time.

And for more on this story, we're joined by Eric Deggans, television critic for The Saint Petersburg Times.

Eric, a lot of history to "The Tonight Show," of course, but why is the show still important? Why does this matter?

ERIC DEGGANS, The Saint Petersburg Times: Well, it is the highest-rated late night show on television. And it's one of the oldest shows on television, at 55 years.

And whoever hosts "The Tonight Show" tends to become NBC's leader in comedy, and becomes the face of the network in comedy, in the same way that Letterman is for CBS. And -- and, so, he becomes an important face, an important symbol for the network, which is why it is so interesting to see Leno move to 10:00 p.m., because now you have this conflict.

Will Conan O'Brien be the face of NBC for comedy, or will Jay Leno?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you are talking about the two different personalities and the importance of the personality for any show, but especially in this place.

Tell -- tell us a little bit more about the different personalities at work here.

ERIC DEGGANS: Sure.

Jay Leno is thought of as someone who is something of a populist. He -- he does a lot of stand-up comedy gigs throughout the country to stay in touch with the people. And he is somebody who brought things like making fun of newspaper headlines and doing man-on-the-street interviews as a way to sort of keep in touch with the average viewer.

O'Brien, I think, is -- is seen as somebody who is a little sillier, a little more youth-oriented, and somebody who is a little more, urbane, because he has been in New York City for 16 years or so.

So, it will be interesting it to see if Conan can tweak his -- his signature brand of comedy to reach out to the wider audience that "The Tonight Show" has always catered to.

A 'big experiment'

JEFFREY BROWN: This move in the fall that you were referring to, this is a big experiment, to move Jay Leno to prime time. It is sort of a paradigm shift for programming. Tell us, what's -- what is the gamble here? What is the thinking?

ERIC DEGGANS: Well, the gamble here is that NBC will be giving up an hour of its prime time every night to a single show.

There is the thought that ratings will probably go down, at least on some nights. It will be hard to compete against popular shows like "CSI: Miami." But the sense is that NBC will still make money, because the show will be so much cheaper to produce.

Now, that won't necessarily be a good thing for the affiliates of NBC, because they will have lowered ratings going into their evening newscasts, which -- where they make a lot of money. And it may not be good for Conan O'Brien, who may see a diminished audience funneled to his show from the late-night -- from the late-night newscast, because people are going off to do other things at 10:00, because they are not interested in Leno.

Leno's popularity growing

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, we said at the top that thiswas all sort of carefully choreographed, although, in the interim, when JayLeno was supposed to leave, he got more popular than ever, right? So, that iswhat led to this 10:00?

ERIC DEGGANS: Yes.

You know, when this was originally announced, something likefive or six years ago, Jay Leno was going down in the ratings. And there wasthe thought that, by the time 2009 came, it would be obvious that he should betransitioning.

But, in that time, Leno got stronger, not weaker. And, infact, Conan O'Brien was the one who saw ratings dips. So, all of a sudden, NBCis in a situation where they have to switch hosts. They wanted to keep ConanO'Brien at NBC. But they didn't want a really strong Jay Leno to go to ABC,which was the strongest competitor.

So, instead, they had to offer Jay Leno this 10:00 p.m. show.Now, imagine if Johnny Carson, back in 1992, had decided to take a little timeoff, and then come back to prime time while Jay Leno was still trying toestablish himself as the host of "The Tonight Show."

I mean, this could seriously undercut Conan O'Brien,although I say, you never -- you never count Conan out, because he's a smartguy and he's very funny.

Millions at stake

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, we are talking about thepersonalities here.

But what -- what -- what are the stakes? What are thefinancial stakes? Because, after all, for the network, that's what -- that'swhat this is much about, right?

ERIC DEGGANS: Well, it's about a lot of things.

Of course, it's about the revenue that these shows generate.But it's also about, what kind of network is NBC going to be in the future? IfJay Leno actually works, I think one of the things you will see is that othernetworks will try variety programming in prime time. In a sense, it will beback to the future, the days of Sid Caesar or Carol Burnett, where we hadvariety shows in prime time all the time.

If it doesn't work, NBC will have damaged its reputationwith its affiliates. There will be millions of dollars of advertising revenueat stake, not just for the networks, but for all the stations that carry NBCprogramming as well. So, this -- this is a big gamble. And it may show thefuture of network TV hanging on Jay Leno's shoulders.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Eric Deggans of The SaintPetersburg times, thanks very much.

ERIC DEGGANS: Thank you.