Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Next Late Night Round: Who Will Rule -- Letterman, Leno or (No Kidding) O'Brien?

Jay Leno needs upgrades; Dave Letterman, humility; Conan O'Brien, a challenging network to reset his act.

What drama we've just been through. Three late night competitors battling it out for ratings and media attention: Beleaguered Conan O'Brien, gone from The Tonight Show, essentially due to his own poor showing; Jay Leno, a failed prime time host about to return to the coveted late night spot he dominated for nearly 15 years, and the other guy -- acerbic David Letterman, who grudgingly believed all along that he should have landed the Tonight Show desk when Johnny Carson retired from it at age 66.

It's been an amusingly bloody slug fest between these three entertainers. What prospects loom ahead? Moreover, who will now rule? Handicapping the possibilities, here I go:

Jay Leno: When he returns to his old 11:35 spot come March 1, no doubt his most avid fans will be there. And if he can convince them that he is not damaged goods but still the same jovial comic waiting to make them laugh and feel comfortable, he has the best chance of winning this precarious race. He'll need to rearrange the furniture, back mostly to the more intimate Tonight Show set up. I think his biggest challenge will be, at least initially, to pack the show with top-flight comedy, engaging guests and a few novel upgrades, not so much as to upset but to advance tradition. He can't come on looking winded or watered down, or, horror of horror's, old hat, from the wars just fought.

David Letterman: Still not in his favor is the man's edgy mean-spirited personality. And he faces a potentially ugly chapter in court arising out of the bribery charges he has leveled against a CBS producer for threatening to expose Letterman's extra curricular sex life with staffers. He is obviously angry over having to compete once again with his ratings better, and this, too, could alienate viewers.

In Letterman's favor, he comes out looking the most established and enduring of the three personalities. And the image of success can breed continued success. So there is a fighting chance that Letterman could come out on top. This largely depends on whether or not he can soften his harsher side into a warmer and fuzzier Dave.

The question yet to be answered: Will any of Leno's fans who defaulted to Letterman while Leno was away return to Leno, or decide they like Letterman more? No doubt a few, but not many -- if Leno again delivers. Leno is the far more comfortably congenial of the two comedians, so I don't see him having a problem getting back his audience. Still, the ratings difference between the two established hosts should be slimmer, which could make for a lively new late night battle, and viewers will benefit from enhanced material. However, these above forecasts could become clouded if the third party enters the fray:

Conan O'Brien: In a sense, he is the biggest victor out of this well reported mess, for he is far better known coming out of it than he was going in. He turned himself into something of an attraction. The public saw much more of him, they may even have laughed a little (he'll have to be funnier than he has been if he is to draw beyond his narrow fan base), and he will garner some sympathetic attention if he launches another late night show on another network -- up to a point. He's not a particularly winning figure at the desk, even more prickly than Letterman. And his comedy bits -- at least those I tried watching several years ago -- struck me as a little too tortured. Moreoever, a reported rigid inflexibility on O'Brien's part in resisting notes given to him by The Tonight Show directors seeking to improve his performance and audience appeal does not bode well.

The comfort factor will still be easily owned by Jay. And O'Brien, wherever he goes, brings a losing track record; as a brief host of the nation's most popular late night talk show, he simply could not produce. Only Fox might be able to turn him from also-ran into a competitive novelty born of fresh cutting-edge, new age showmanship. Indeed, over at Fox, where he has less to lose and can afford to take bigger risks, he might help network television craft an exciting new form of late night entertainment. But unless Fox's savvy can produce a miraculous turnaround, O'Brien will soon join the scrape heap of failed talk show hosts.

Summing up, across the finish line: Leno, Letterman, O'Brien

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