What all this Leno/Conan/Late Night Gubbins is about: a primer for friends in the UK

Right – after an hour of explaining this to my lovely seeester, I thought I should write a little primer for those who might be confused about what they might be hearing about this kerfuffle over late night television in the US (if theyve heard anything at all), or who arent quite sure what the full picture is.

Basically, I just find the whole thing fascinating, and have been following it avidly, so I might as well pass on what Ive learnt here, since I dont think anyone would want to pay me for it

(Ill put it under a more jump, though, so those – like my little mother, hello! – who couldnt give a toss can ignore it easier – honestly, I will start doing things like this on that TV blog once its up, so they can be even MORE easily ignored and, more importantly, where I will be free to be a TV-wonk to my hearts content, but it isnt quite ready yet)

Right: Before I begin, let me just say, there are probably countless details I will get slightly wrong, as I still find the importance placed on these Late Night shows/hosts (compared to their watchability) a bit weird and alien. Luckily I have lots of lovely Merkin readers who will, I hope, correct me and fill in the finer points for you in the comments. This is just how I perceive it.

VERY BRIEFLY:

It might seem from afar like a bunch of divas having tantrums, or egotistical famous gentlemen having some kind of loud contest about who has the thickest scholng, but actually its more interesting than that. Its a broadcaster making mistake after mistake, a legal tussle to see who will be the first to breach contract, which basically turned into a game of chicken, played out live on air.

SLIGHTLY LESS BRIEFLY, IN POINT FORM

  • IMPORTANT: In 2004, after contract negotiations, Jay Leno announced he was going to retire before he got to 60, and Conan OBrien negotiated a contract that had him taking over from Leno on his retirement in 2009.
  • As 2009 approached, Leno started to seem less keen on retirement after all, and in order to stop him moving to a rival channel, NBC created a new show, called The Jay Leno Show, which would go out every night at 10pm. This would be followed by the local news, then Conan with The Tonight Show at 11.35.
  • The 10pm slot has traditionally been for scripted drama, like, say, ER. Taking drama out of that prime spot five nights a week in exchange for a chat show may have saved NBC lots of money, but made television critics and fans of drama quite cross, as it represented five scripted dramas that wouldnt be commissioned, along with all the people who would have worked on them finding it even harder to find work. (grrrr)
  • Conan moved to The Tonight Show in May: The Jay Leno Show started in September.
  • The ratings for neither show have been great. In December, Jay said on his show that if he was asked to take the Tonight show back, he would.
  • With NBCs local affiliates – a more important part of the equation than is hard to understand in a smaller country/market – reporting a continuing and remarkable decline (up to 40-55% of their audience disappearing in some areas) in ratings, NBC was under pressure to move Jay Leno from 10pm, and provide a stronger lead-in for the local news by putting drama there (yay!).
  • NBC had written a clause into OBriens contract stating that, if they gave the Tonight Show back to Leno, he would be released from contract/given a substantial payoff.
  • The proposal put forward by NBC the week before last was that Jay Leno would move to a half hour show at 11.35 (the traditional time of The Tonight Show) and OBrien at 12.05am, and poor Jimmy Fallon at 1.05am
  • The basics seem to be this: if NBC continued calling it the tonight show but shoved it back, they believed they got to keep all their stars, and not have to pay anyone off.
  • Over a weekend, nothing much was said by anyone. Then, on Tuesday, Conan OBrien wrote a very polite, but very firm open letter, containing his main argument: That a tonight show at 12.05am wasnt tonight. It was tomorrow. It had been his dream to host this show: it was being taken away too soon.
  • This was where the fun began. If NBC took Conan off the air, they would be in some kind of breach of contract, and he might be able to get out of the contract. If Conan refused to go on air, he would be in breach, and have to deal with the consequences of that (possibly being locked into the network for up to three years, while they had no obligation to use him or put him on air).
  • And so began a monumental game of chicken. Conan went onto his show every night subsequently, and did monologues that consisted entirely of calling his network useless, unpopular, incapable of running itself – of calling its executives liars and thieves, and calling Leno all manner of other things. He would then perform a skit on the same topic, and pepper the rest of his show with the same. His guests (including Ricky Gervais) joined in, some heartily (like Ricky Gervais) and with the added kind of swearwords very taboo on the networks (oh, Ricky). And once hed kicked it off, and theyd joined in, so did all – or most – of the other late night hosts.
  • By the time it got to Friday, and with damage done on reputations, ratings, future prospects and share prices all round, enough was enough, and NBC announced that Conan OBrien would be leaving the Tonight Show, and Jay Leno will be returning as host on March 2nd.
  • The enormous clusterfuck of bare-knuckle television presenting in the meantime, however, was pretty remarkable to watch. And by remarkable I mean remarkable, jawdropping, yet often painful.
    And more of that below.

AND NOW IN A BUNCH MORE DETAIL, WITH BELLS AND WHISTLES, WITH THE BASICS
(AS I UNDERSTAND THEM)

THE TONIGHT SHOW

Is a venerable institution. And yes, by venerable, I mean not very funny. However, funny or not, its been going since the mid-fifties, only had a clutch of longstanding hosts (Johnny Carson being the longest, and legendary in the interviewing-people-late-at-night stakes), it comes on at 11.35, following the local news on NBC.

The structure is extremely formulaic. Basically theres a host, who has an announcer (who screams his name when he comes on stage, then remains on stage to provide banter and laugh at the hosts jokes) and a band (who point out when those jokes have occurred with a dum-ptsch! on the drums, and otherwise spend their time playing really poor 80s bass-heavy jazz-soft-rock incidental music). Theres an opening monologue, then some kind of skit, a first guest (plugging their movie/tv show/whatever), a second guest (plugging theirs), and then a band or a comedian at the end.
Every weeknight. For 55 years.

It was hosted by Jay Leno from 1992-2009. It is currently hosted by Conan OBrien. It will be hosted by Jay Leno again from 2 March 2010.

CURRENT STATE OF THE LATE NIGHT SCHEDULE

After The Tonight Show, there is The Late Night Show at 12.35 (Jimmy Fallon), and then another one after that by Carson Daly, but by that point no one cares anymore, poor lamb.
Similarly, on CBS (another one of the basic nework channels, rather than the extra, paid-for, cable channels that shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are on), there is The Late Show (presented by David Letterman), and The Late Late Show (Craig Ferguson. You know, Scottish guy. Nice man).
ABC has a late night chat show too, but its just called Jimmy Kimmel Live, presumably because all the variations on Night and Late were already taken, and because its presented by Jimmy Kimmel. Oh, it also has an exclamation mark after its name, which is probably the main reason I cant bring myself to watch that one, even though Kimmels quite funny.

THE PLAYERS

A controversial choice when he took over in 1992 Jay Leno is an affable man with a chin the size of Canada and a reportedly large audience in middle-America, who are apparently fond of the gentle topical humour scripted for him by his writing team, and for skits such as Jaywalking, where Leno and camera crew ask simple trivia questions of people in the street, hoping to happen upon a stupid one, and always, always succeeding. Took audiences some considerable time to warm to him as the Tonight Show host, though he held and maintained the No.1 slot after happening to have Hugh Grant on his sofa just after the Divine Brown scandal broke.

Conan OBrien hosted Late Night, after Jay Leno, from 1993-2009. He took over that seat from David Letterman. Ridiculously tall, and with the kind of indeflatable ginger bouffant last seen (occasionally) on Mrs Slocombe. He came to Late Night after working on the Simpsons in its infancy, and that kind of humour is evident in first Late Night then The Tonight Show. He presented the Late Night show from New York, and uprooted his family to Los Angeles (where more glitzy guests are available, among other things) for The Tonight Show. As did all his writing staff, crew, band etc.

David Letterman used to do Late Night, after Johnny Carson, and was expected to take over from Carson after he retired (and was Carsons own preferred choice). When the show was given to Leno, Letterman defected to CBS, where hes been much-loved ever since (although not quite so much in the ratings: Leno consistently won those). He does his show out of New York too.

Jimmy Kimmel: More of a comedian than the affable after-dinner speaker persona of the others, hes spiky. And doesnt seem to give a fuck.

Jimmy Fallon: New to the gang, Fallon used to be on Saturday Night Live – which is also, to a great extent, horrendously unfunny, but dont get me started on that. Suffice to say: it is an object lesson in how to drag a 30 second joke out for nine painful minutes. And then make it a returning character. And then maybe a feature film. Woeful.

Craig Ferguson: Funny monologues, and a couple of good skits that Ive seen. Doesnt fit quite the same mold or format as the others, whcih actually seems to work well for him.

But frankly, until this last couple of weeks, I hadnt much time for the lot of them.
a) Theres only so many ways you can make plugging a product much fun.
b) The Daily Show and Colbert do topical better, and if by some bizarre chance I actually missed anything, twitter would let me know and Hulu/YouTube would have the clips. The one I would actively seek out the morning after was Craig Ferguson, because his monologues are very funny.
c) Who the hell watches TV at 1.30am?! When do you SLEEP?

THE RECENT HISTORY

In 2004, Jay Leno announced that he wanted to retire before he hit 60, which he will in April of 2010.
When he announced that, Conan stated his interest in finally getting to take over the Tonight Show, after spending 16 years behind his Late Night desk.

Though he was a riskier choice, being slightly more surreal and less everyman-ish, it was thought that after a bedding-in time, he would prove as popular a host as Leno. But the dropping news ratings mean that he hasnt been given this time. Some would say (Leno has said) that seven months should be enough: OBrien counters that Leno was allowed longer to settle in initially, and that his numbers were lower due to a) not having a strong lead in from the news which had lost numbers due to Leno and b) many of the guests who would have plugged their crappy new film on The Tonight Show going to Leno instead.

THE COLOSSAL-GAME-OF-CHICKEN/HOLY-MOTHERLOVIN-CLUSTERFUCK WEEK

The clips of Conan and Jay are mainly on Hulu and not on YouTube, by the way, so I havent linked to any of them because I presume if youre reading this beginners guide (by a beginner) you wont have regional access to Hulu. and I hate things that blithely link to videos I cant see where I am.

After Conan released his statement, a lot more people probably tuned in to see what would happen on his show that evening. I know I bloody did. Im Conan OBrien, and Ive been practicing my Mocha Frappucino he said, or something like, and everyone clapped and whooped and made supportive noises. The jokes of that evening were barbed and felt close to the bone, but not over the top – mainly revolving around possible career paths after leaving late night television.

As the week went on they got more aggressive. By the next night, Kenneth the page (from 30 Rock) was coming on half way through the monologue, bringing guided tours to show them the former studio of the tonight show with Conan O Brien. But the end of the week Conan was putting office equipment, furniture and even the show itself on ebay to try and help with the clearout, airing classic moments montages from the whole history of the show (well, the last seven months), and quoting news about NBC share prices dropping, while laughing, fullheartedly, at the camera.

Meanwhile, Leno said very little, until, in possibly the winning move of the first night, Jimmy Kimmel on ABC did his full hours show not only dressed up as Leno, but doing a full Leno impression, mannerisms, voice etc. Leno invited Kimmel onto his show for his regular ten at ten feature (ten questions, a ten oclock show), which is here, and so painful by the last few minutes its barely fun to watch at all (but still a bit, obv).

Letterman laid into Leno on Wednesday night, siding with Conan – but mainly, it was widely suggested, because some of the only brief, mainly veiled or subtle mentions hed made to the troubles, Leno had dropped in a reference to Lettermans latest sex scandal (famous man in power in sleeping with interns shocker), and that had pissed him off.

Jimmy Fallon of Late Night on NBC, meanwhile, said next to nothing – but since whatever happened, he was going to have to follow ONE of the primary two combatants, it was probably wise to do so. Craig Ferguson, not directly threatened by any of the moves but also, it seems, refreshingly outside the self-importantness of the argument, just seemed amused by it all, mainly. And if Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert said anything at all, I missed it – they spent the week dealing with actual news.

WHY THIS IS INTERESTING (TO ME, OR MAYBE IN GENERAL)

Its the fact that this all got played out very openly, live on air. The fact that for once, you actually had a situation where there may have been a lot of backroom negotations going on, but the effect of them was seen live on air. People were speaking their minds – which in the very polite, political world of big talent and big money, is rare. For me, I had never imagined that someone could go on air, live, for an hour at a time, slagging off the channel they were on, the people who ran that channel, and the people they were supposed to count as their respected peers. And when you realise theyre all doing it as some complex game, maneuvering themselves into various positions around the two most high profile pieces in the game.

Because its all about timeslots, and lead-ins, and audience share and affiliates and oh I dont care anymore. Sorry, thats the bit where it becomes too detailed even for me. Im a telly wonk, but Im not THAT wonky.

But the thing remains: it is not often a curtain gets raised like this, and it has been, for a brief time, a remarkable insight on the workings of it all – and the true bitterness, fear and anger present in all parts of the industry (of most similar industries) right now.

And also: in a world where I certainly watch television differently, and the trend must go the same way (flexible methods ofwatching, choosing your own best schedule, online, on demand etc) I honestly find it bizarre and archaic that theres all this fuss about one time slot or the other. Its strange. Yet compelling. Very.

So to cut a long story short

Im kidding. The story is already too long.

Gah, sorry – Im going to leave it there. Im sorry to go on at such length by the end, but the thing is, I really do find this fascinating – not least because I cant understand who watches the bloody things in the first place. And fascinating beyond that. Just because it is fascinating.

Sorry it is long (though please, I hope you did not feel obliged to read it) and yes, yes, dear lovely Merkin readers, I know there will be a whole host of things I have got wrong. In this particular area, I fully admit to being far more enthusiast than expert. As I said at the top, this is just my perception, what Ive gleaned, my take. But if you have anything extra to add – or to correct (oh, be nice) – please do let me know in the comments.

So there you are. Not just a willy-waving contest after all.
Just about 55% one of those.