PAST DEADLINE

Conan swoops in as NBC casts Jay away: Just another weird twist on the late shift

It's now been just more than four years since NBC announced that Jay Leno would be departing his hosting gig on "The Tonight Show" in 2009 to make room for Conan O'Brien. We found out in the summer that the official Leno finale would be May 29.

I know that you already know all this. It's been written about ad infinitum by of journalists and bloggers, most of whom have only a shaky grasp on how to spell ad infinitum. But this remains a huge, massive, gigantic deal because, though the years have piled up and Leno will be turning the ripe old age of 59 on April 28, his popularity seems not at all on the wane.

You might think this would be a nightmare for NBC, which no doubt figured Leno's ratings would be starting to tank right on schedule as Conan waited in the wings with his pouffy hair and younger demos. The scenario envisioned by the Peacock involved something akin to a smooth transition, conveniently forgetting that there's no such thing as an orderly changeover in the "Tonight Show" world.

It almost seemed to make sense when NBC made the announcement in 2004. Leno would be nearly 60, O'Brien a mere 46. Jay is the guy hustling a buck in the Catskills; Conan speaks to your kid at Michigan State. Demographically, it's no contest. And had NBC chief Jeff Zucker not moved when he did to lock up Conan to move into the Big Chair in '09, he would have been snapped up by ABC or Fox.

Even given all of that, NBC is still nuts, not to mention coldhearted and ungrateful. You've got to figure that if the network brass had an opportunity to scotch the whole harebrained scheme, it would. But it's too late. They'd have to fork over practically more than the network itself is worth to Conan as a penalty, and you know that's not going to happen.

It's just baffling how NBC still can justify sending its most valuable asset packing when he's still raking in the dough like no one else in late-night — or in the NBC universe. This point was driven home rather forcefully in September when the full 52-week ratings averages for the 2007-2008 broadcast year were released.

The news release tossed out by the net trumpeted how Leno had completed his 13th consecutive season at No. 1, cleaning David Letterman's clock by an average of more than 1 million total viewers a night (4.7 million-3.5 million) and besting his time-slot rival by 57% in the 18-34 demo.

Here's something even more impressive to chew on: Leno's 18-49 demo numbers match the combined figure for hipsters Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central. And if you add up the nightly audiences of Conan, Jimmy Kimmel and Colbert, it still doesn't reach the total viewership of "Tonight."

Is this a guy who appears ready for the slippers, the rocking chair and the Metamucil?

Sure, Leno's not cool anymore, if he ever was. He's square and predictable and rarely as amusing and compelling as the guy he beats the Worldwide Pants off of every week year after year. But I thought TV was still mostly about delivering the largest number of eyeballs to advertisers, and by that score it's tough to see the logic in cutting the man loose.

This is not to even mention the humiliation Leno has been forced to endure as the lamest of ducks while his successor stands poised over him with that ax. They've done it to a guy who is widely acknowledged to be the prototype team player, one never above pressing the flesh with affiliates and doing the required grunt work.

Even Letterman himself is baffled by the seemingly inevitable changeover (which also has Jimmy Fallon replacing Conan on "Late Night" starting in June). In a rare interview, Letterman recently told Rolling Stone magazine: "I don't know why, after the job Jay has done for them, why they would relinquish that. … It just seems so preposterous to me."

Me too, Dave.

Ray Richmond can be reached at ray.richmond@THR.com.
comments powered by Disqus