I’m not really sure it was wise to debut Conan O’Brien around the same time they do TV spots for Jay Leno’s new 10pm slot, weeknights on NBC. O’Brien is a hard enough sell but continuing to keep Leno dangling makes it seem like NBC is saying, “Hey, check out our new Tonight Show host, but don’t worry; Jay Leno isn’t going anywhere!” Why not just give O’Brien a chance to soar without Leno weighing down his wings?
O’Brien is certainly off to a great start. The ratings for his first Monday were the highest they’ve been in four years on that night, and utterly trounced David Letterman. But will it last? Will O’Brien’s edgier sense of humor really work following Leno’s somewhat more tame and generally pleasing format? The answer is, probably. O’Brien is funny in all ways. The trick will be developing a relationship with the Johnny Carson/Jay Leno sect.
In order to cover its butt, however, NBC has decided to put Leno in their 10pm slot in order to avoid the expense in creating a hit or miss drama. It’s a win-win for them; they know Leno’s fans will follow him there and Tonight Show fans will go for a double header of Leno and then O’Brien. This also allows O’Brien a bit more wiggle room in terms of holding onto his edge; audiences who are put off can just tune into Leno and leave it at that.
It’s kind of a screwed up move for O’Brien, who will have to trail Leno and not get first crack at the day’s events. Leno will have already exhausted many of the topical jokes by then. It’s kind of like the Keith Olbermann/Rachel Maddow one-two punch. Finding something new to say is a trick for Maddow but Olbermann gets the first crack at the daily news. Both anchors hold their own and remain some of the most vital and interesting voices on TV.
In terms of NBC, they could stand to gain some ground again as they struggle to stay competitive at a time when their lineups aren’t nearly as exciting as they used to be. And it’s clear that they care more about the 10pm slot than the 11:30pm slot, hence the Leno countermove.
Leno won’t be in place until fall, which gives O’Brien a nice bit of time to build up his audience. Although many are complaining about this move, it will be a nice break from the Law and Order monopoly and reality show nonsense. Really, isn’t it about time there was some intelligence brought back into the mainstream? That is, if Leno really goes there. Hopefully it won’t be a whole lot of nothing.