Left Coast Bias: Oh, Calm Down: Late Night Is a Marathon

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It's amazing what happened last week in Universal City when David Letterman's ratings eclipsed those of Conan O'Brien for the first time on the night of June 9. According to my well-placed late-night moles, to say NBC went into unabated panic mode is an incredible understatement.

The morning after being honored at a big dinner in New York, Jeff Zucker jumped on a flight to Los Angeles for an emergency confab. He did so on the orders of General Electric chief Jeffrey Immelt, who hustled to Los Angeles as well. Marc Graboff even escaped from agents trying to do personal harm unto him and attended.

At the meeting, say my sources, everything meant to staunch the bleeding was considered, from immediately returning Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show, to swapping the roles of O'Brien and Today host Matt Lauer going forward. Both of these are part of the already-in-place succession plans NBC has to have under GE mandate.

Ultimately, NBC decided to stick with O'Brien—for this week—and will revisit his role as host on a week-to-week basis.

And if you think any of this is true, you should revisit the place where you apparently got your lobotomy.

I absolutely love the stories and scuttlebutt that suggest NBC is panicking. My appreciation is due entirely to these stories' comedic value. While Letterman's early win made for great headlines, the battle for 11:35 supremacy is going to go on for a long time. I'm talking Minnesota Senate race long.

Letterman may end up winning every night until Jon Stewart takes his place when Dave's new deal expires in 2012. But there are plenty of factors that can and probably will shape this race.

First off, Conan's initial ratings mean nothing; it was largely curiosity tune-in, much like what Leno will enjoy in September. So his ratings fall-off is partially understandable.

But Conan is also an acquired taste, while Leno is decidedly Middle America-friendly. A lot of people will turn on Conan's show and dismiss the quirky redhead, as the numbers have already shown. But much like the audience he eventually built at 12:35, my guess is the same will happen an hour earlier.

Two events, however, could eat into his numbers. The first is when Leno comes back on-air. His 10 p.m. show—the most talked-about thing in TV right now by a mile—may pull away some viewers, if not bookings.

Another disruptor could come if ABC finally moves Jimmy Kimmel to 11:35, as has been discussed often, even if the network didn't land Chelsea Handler to follow him. To make way, there have been quiet talks about a primetime place for the Nightline brand.

If Letterman does take over first place for a while, things can change quickly. Just ask Dave. Remember, when Letterman moved to CBS, he was red-hot. Even O'Brien told me recently that he thought replacing the trendy Letterman in 1993 was more pressure than taking the Tonight Show reins. But Leno grew and eventually surpassed Letterman, and basically kicked his ass every night until he got moved out of 11:35 by NBC.

So what should Conan be hoping for? Hugh Grant to score another hooker? Clearly, a “seminal” moment (sorry about that) has been known to change late-night momentum.

This may turn out to be Letterman's time to shine. But right now, TheTonight Show is hardly on top of NBC's list of things to panic about.

E-mail comments to
ben.grossman@reedbusiness.com

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