“My name is Conan O’Brien, and I may soon be available for children’s parties.”
This is how Conan began his monologue on January 13, 2010, amid the curiously circulating debate over the Tonight Show.
On January 7, 2010, NBC made the announcement that Jay Leno would be getting his 11:35 time slot back, thereby pushing back O’Brien’s Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live. Leno commenting on the time change, on his January 11 show said, “My people are upset. Conan’s people are upset. Hey, NBC said it wanted drama at 10:00 — now they’ve got it!”
The Tonight Show began in 1954 on NBC and is the longest currently-running regularly scheduled entertainment program in the country, but it’s most famous for its run under Johnny Carson, the legend often known as the “King of Late Night.” In the thirty years he ran the show, Tonight Show was a primetime staple. When the icon stepped down amid struggles with NBC executives, his last show drew 50 million viewers.
Leno taking over the Tonight show was controversial to begin with, so it’s understandable that he’d take the slot back in controversy. Back when he first took over the show in 1992, David Letterman was considered the easy choice by fans and Carson himself considered him his successor. Letterman was doing the Late Night show right after Carson and was performing very well in that position. When NBC announced it would be putting Jay Leno in the position, who had been performing as one of Carson’s sidekicks for a few years, Letterman left in a huff for CBS to do a new show there (taking many of his fans with him).
Conan took over in 2009, while Jay Leno stepped aside to take on his own show, The Jay Leno Show. When stepping aside Leno called O’Brien “certainly the most deserving person for the job” of hosing the show, and said he didn’t want the same type of hard feelings to develop as had happened between Leno and Letterman.
But then a year later, with the ratings of both shows deteriorating and the Winter Olympic Games coming quickly to eclipse Leno’s time spot, the network announced it would be pushing O’Brien back to midnight and putting a shortened version of Leno’s show in its place. O’Brien was, understandably frustrated at this decision, and he pushed back. He refused the move.
So NBC bought out his contract, Leno was given his old spot back, and O’Brien was out of a job. “I remember watching the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and thinking, ‘Someday I’m gonna host that show… for seven months.’”
Celebrities and fans have been taking sides, the overwhelming support coming for O’Brien. Theories and questions have flooded the blogosphere; entertainment and news sources are all out claiming to have the real scoop on the struggle. But the question has to be asked: How long will this continue? Not this feud, but late night talk shows. Advertising prices have been going down, Tonight Show’s format is becoming obsolete, the late night airwaves are quickly filling with competitors. Soon someone is bound to ask the question: is the Tonight Show worth fighting for? And, in the era of YouTube and Hulu, as Jon Swallen of TNS media puts it, “When everybody is famous for 15 minutes, it is no longer worth 15 minutes of a viewer’s time to tune in and see it.”
The future is in doubt either way. Who will be the new “King of Late Night?” Leno, Letterman or O’Brien in whatever new show he picks up (if any network takes him)? Or will the “King of Late Night” fail to adapt and become a paper crown? Tune in and find out.