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The Late Night Wars: Winners and Losers

by Gary Susman, posted Jan 22nd 2010 9:00AM
Now that the battle over 'The Tonight Show' is officially over, with Jay Leno taking back his old job and Conan O'Brien all but out the door with an eight-figure severance check, it's time to sift through the rubble to see who's come out on top. Surprisingly, the debacle has turned out to be a win for almost everyone involved, with three glaring exceptions.

WINNERS

Jay Leno. Not for the first time, Leno proves victorious with his rope-a-dope strategy (let your opponents underestimate you, be prepared to accept a heap of abuse, then take what you want when your opponents finally tire out). Now he gets back the job he never wanted to leave in the first place, the most prestigious and lucrative post in the comedy world. Sure, to a lot of Conan O'Brien fans, he comes off as the bad guy for reneging on his agreement to retire in 2009 and for forcing O'Brien out of a job he'd spent 16 years earning. But that tarnished image is more a short-term marketing problem for NBC than a permanent reputation problem for Leno. Conan's ratings failure at 11:35 (exacerbated in part by the weak lead-in of 'The Jay Leno Show') has set a low bar for Jay to hop over when he returns in March. And the job is probably his for as long as he wants it; you think anyone at NBC is ever going to try to force him out again?

Jimmy Kimmel. His merciless hour-long impersonation of Leno last week, and his similarly confrontational visit to Leno's "10 @ 10" segment two days later, burnished Kimmel's credentials as a comic's comic, as well as the most fearless personality in late-night. Of course, it's easier to be fearless when your network is standing behind you, giving you a public vote of confidence and telling the world it's not interested in replacing you with a defector from a rival network.

"Neil Young" sings on 'Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,' Jan. 10, 2010


Jimmy Fallon. He managed to play Switzerland in this war, declining to take sides and insisting he's happy just to have a job. His reward: Not only does he still have a job and a show that ends before 2:05AM, but now he's the heir apparent to 'The Tonight Show,' a post he's likely to land a lot sooner than he would have if Conan had been allowed to settle into the job. Moreover, his brand of late-night comedy, served up in conveniently bite-sized morsels that are perfect for viral video, seems to point the way to late-night's future. Besides, he has as his protector...

Lorne Michaels. He proved himself a power broker by not lifting a finger. He could have helped Conan, whom he made a star in the first place, but he was reportedly still resentful over not having been named executive producer of 'Tonight' when Conan brought the rest of his New York operation to Los Angeles. You can bet NBC won't make the mistake of shortchanging Michaels again, especially now that Michaels' new protégé, Fallon, will have a much shorter wait time for his succession. Michaels now becomes the man most likely to have the greatest influence over the shape of NBC's late-night programming in the near future.

Craig Ferguson. Late-night's smartest host, who was the first to cut back on Jay-vs.-Conan jokes because the multimillionaires' dispute seemed so trivial in light of the Haitian earthquake, gets to look like the most thoughtful, least petty person involved in this mess. Whether or not he continues to receive a strong lead-in from David Letterman, he should have no trouble continuing to hold his own in the ratings against Fallon.

The NBC affiliates. A year ago, when NBC announced that Leno would be moving to 10PM, the NBC station in his hometown of Boston threatened not to air the show (knowing it would harm the station's profit center, its 11PM local newscast), until NBC retaliated by threatening to withhold the rest of its programming. But the affiliates knew what NBC's leaders refused to acknowledge, that 'The Jay Leno Show' would cut into the profits of local stations. Cut to a year later when the affiliates, proven sadly correct, threaten a mass revolt, forcing NBC's hand, leading to the late-night bloodbath of the last two weeks. NBC and the other networks may be looking for a new 21st-century business model to shore up their declining viewership, but it's still the business model that's been in place since the 1950s that's determining the networks' future.

Mike Mitchell. The artist behind the ubiquitous 'I'm With Coco' poster, a design that launched a thousand Facebook pages, becomes the Shepard Fairey of 2010.

Scripted TV producers. 'The Jay Leno Show' was thought to be a death knell for grown-up, hour-long dramas. Now, suddenly, NBC needs more episodes, not only of dramas like 'Law & Order: SVU' and 'Trauma' (raised from its deathbed to fill the 10PM void), but also fledgling comedies like 'Community' and 'Parks and Recreation.' Plus, NBC has ordered as many as 20 pilots for next season.

Cable's late-night hosts. If you want edgy, younger-skewing comedy before midnight, you're not going to get it on the networks anymore, which means more viewers under 50 will turn to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Chelsea Handler, Mo'Nique, and George Lopez.

Carson Daly. Dude's lucky he still has a job.

LOSERS
Conan O'Brien. Yes, he got a huge settlement, enough to pay his staffers a generous severance out of his own pocket. But he loses his dream job, his signature comedy bits (NBC is apparently retaining custody of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and other copyrighted intellectual property), his public platform (there's a short-term gag order keeping him from visiting other talk shows as a guest, and a longer-term non-competition clause keeping him from launching a new show before Sept. 1), and any sense of future job security. Yeah, he might land over at Fox (if Fox's affiliates agree to relinquish some of their lucrative late-night airtime, hardly a surefire prospect) with a much lower salary, or he might end up a showbiz footnote relegated to a few weeks on 'Dancing With the Stars.' Team Coco proved more vocal in their support than Team Leno, but where were they when Conan needed them, as loyal viewers of his 'Tonight Show'? Conan's martyrdom is a moral victory, but moral victory doesn't get you a TV show or a paycheck or even a cup of coffee.

Conan O'Brien Wastes NBC's Money While He Still Can


David Letterman. Just when he was having so much fun beating up on Leno, here comes Dave's old nemesis, back to the timeslot where he'd routinely beat Dave like a rented mule for 14 years. No reason to expect Leno won't continue to trounce Letterman; it's not like Jay fans have suddenly become Dave fans.

NBC. There's one thing Leno supporters and O'Brien supporters can agree on: NBC screwed their guy over. In this PR disaster, NBC can't help but look like the villain. It went back on its word to both Leno and O'Brien and gave neither enough time to prove himself in his new timeslot. (If that's the kind of treatment NBC gave to two of its biggest stars, why would any big-name talent want to sign on with the company in the future? Why would anyone trust NBC management to keep its word?) The network's 10PM experiment is a failure that alienated the affiliates and failed to lift NBC out of fourth place. Now it'll have to scramble to fill that timeslot and shell out tens of millions of extra bucks for 10PM programming this spring and in the fall. Plus, it's out nearly $100 million for O'Brien's seven-month tenure at 'Tonight' ($50 million to build him a studio and office complex and $45 fmillion for his buyout package). It's clear that NBC mismanaged the late-night transition from the very beginning -- that is, since the 2004 deal where, in fear of losing Conan to another network, it persuaded Jay to agree to early retirement. The network backed the wrong horse then, just as it appears to be backing the wrong horse now. And for these failures, NBC chief Jeff Zucker is rewarded with a three-year contract extension -- suggesting that mismanagement at NBC goes even higher than Zucker's office.

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