Late night pile up: a tragic story of business, branding, succession planning and jokes

Here in the UK we don’t really follow the US late-night talk show hosts. Sure, we get the Tonight Show and The Daily Show on cable, and Letterman has bounced from channel to channel. But attempts to follow the formula (set 50 years ago and involving a monologue, comedy bits, guests and maybe music) in Britain haven’t really worked (anyone remember The Jack Docherty Show on Channel 5?) and fan sites like Late Show UK are thin on the ground. O’Brien, Ferguson, Kimmel, Meyer, Colbert and Daly are not household names this side of the pond (though Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show skit with Halle Berry made page 3 of Metro). So it’s a matter of surprise to me to have read two books back to back on the subject of late night TV schedules, and to be reasonably interested to know that TruTV – a cable/satellite channel launching next week – has Conan O’Brien as part of its late night line-up. But the story of the schedule merry-go-round is riveting.

Why? First, The Late Shift and The War for Late Night are excellent, well-researched, sympathetic and pacy. The former looks at how David Letterman and Jay Leno jousted to be host of the legendary Tonight Show on the departure of its long-time host Johnny Carson. Such was the interest in the story that the book was made into a successful film. NBC, the TV company involved, was bruised enough by the whole affair to try to avoid the rancour and bitterness when it came to choosing Jay Leno’s successor. The extent to which they spectacularly failed is covered in great detail in The War for Late Night. If you read only one, read this; but my recommendation is to start the story at the beginning and read both.

Second, the characters. These tales are tragedies with plenty of ‘if only’ and with the potential for goodies and baddies. Author Bill Carter – who obviously knows all the key players – is very careful to be fair and we see everyone’s point of view – which is even better because you can label someone a baddie and then feel regret because the charge is so unfair.

Third, this is a tale of the value of a brand – what kept Conan O’Brien at NBC long past the time he could have made megabucks elsewhere.

And finally, this is a brilliant business case study, bearing in mind imperfect knowledge, changing barriers to entry in a market, negotiation, strategy and succession planning.

NBC’s cack-handedness in appointing Leno in 1993 led to the late night market becoming really competitive for the first time – indeed, for the first year or so Dave (Letterman, now on CBS and going head-to-head against his former friend) trounced Leno in the ratings, although Leno eventually pulled ahead. Letterman remained the sophisticated choice, revered by comedians, while Leno became…well, a bit of a laughing stock, but the market leader at the same time.

Fast forward to 2004 and NBC chief Jeff Zucker had a different headache. Dave’s successor at Late Night (the show that, at 12.35am followed The Tonight Show) was the one-time Simpsons writer Conan O’Brien, who had become TV’s hottest property. Fox in particular were sniffing around O’Brien, who was seen to bring the advertisers’ dream audience of young adults. Zucker’s plan was to lock O’Brien in to NBC by promising him the Tonight chair – in 2009. Leno would continue to present until then.

Conan O'Brien. Source: Wikipedia
Conan O’Brien. Source: Wikipedia

A generation of American comedians will understand why O’Brien agreed to the deal. Who among them had not wanted to present Tonight? In agreeing to the lock, O’Brien lost a potential fortune he could almost certainly have made elsewhere. But the dream of Tonight – this amazing brand that had been such a part of post-war US culture – was, he thought, worth the high price. For Zucker, the deal had huge advantages: it offered the potential for elegance (assuming Leno would actually retire), it kept O’Brien from going anywhere, and it protected NBC from the horrid situation it had found itself in previously.

But by 2008 the deal began to unravel. Leno was openly suggesting that he might move to rivals ABC. Research by NBC’s sales department suggested that Conan O’Brien would come off worst in a fight – even though he’d still bring the most ad-friendly audience. NBC’s solution was to offer Leno a new slot at 10.00pm and a unique pay-AND-play contract (guaranteeing air time). Unfortunately, The Jay Leno Show was doomed before it started: NBC allowed its affiliate stations to help design the show, with disastrous audience results for Leno, the affiliate news programmes that followed him, and also for Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show. After a couple of months on air in late 2009, the affiliates themselves threatened mutiny and it’s then that NBC came up with another plan: shorten Leno and move it to 11.35pm, and shunt The Tonight Show and Late Night (now hosted by Jimmy Fallon) back accordingly. They cleared the idea with Leno before approaching O’Brien, but botched the latter move. There would be a fight for 11.35.

Now it was O’Brien’s turn to call foul. He’d waited years and lost money to follow his dream but now wasn’t sure that his new bride was the woman he’d wooed. This is where Carter’s story telling makes the issue come alive. We see all sides of the story (O’Brien’s, Leno’s and NBC’s) in real time – and we know what O’Brien did not: NBC badly wanted him to stay even at the time they were counter-productively playing hardball with his agents. NBC were trying to show O’Brien that they were trying to protect him, but their actions and comments suggested they were trying to screw him over. We know from Carter’s sympathetic portrayal that there is no Iago figure: most people were trying to act in a trustworthy way even though there was hardly any trust to go round. A call from Leno to O’Brien could have helped smooth the issue: Leno suggested it but NBC, misreading the relationship between the two hosts’ camps, discouraged a call. And O’Brien’s contract was deficient: unlike other late-night hosts, O’Brien wasn’t protected from the station moving the slot of his show. But with the argument playing out very visibly – with barbs flying on the two competing hosts’ shows and with Letterman and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel also joining in with glee (both on O’Brien’s side) – there was little chance that O’Brien and NBC could lock themselves in a room and sort things out. Each day there’d be a new deterioration in the relationship until O’Brien’s People of Earth declaration set out his position publicly: moving The Tonight Show until 12.05am would destroy the show’s brand, and the show’s host, if not its network, wasn’t prepared to be party to that.

O’Brien’s declaration led to a massive outpouring of public support – and meant that a parting with NBC became inevitable. This was despite some commentators – such as Jerry Seinfeld – suggesting that NBC’s proposed solution actually made sense for all concerned. O’Brien hadn’t really been tearing it up at 11.35pm and a later start may have helped him. Yes, O’Brien would still be following Leno’s monologue but did that really matter? Many of his fans consumed the show the following day anyway. And as for the brand, Seinfeld and others argued that the real brand was the host. People talked about tuning into Letterman or Leno or Kimmel, Ferguson or O’Brien, not The Tonight Show, The Late Show, The Late Late Show, Later, Last Call or Late Night. People followed Letterman to CBS (though they hadn’t followed Jay Leno to 10.00pm). Surely all these guys were attempting to be the heir to Johnny Carson. Wouldn’t a clearer analysis have settled on him as the brand?

But by now O’Brien had fallen out of love with NBC and The Tonight Show. He came to an agreement with NBC and has been on cable station TBS since 2010. In 2014, when Jay Leno retired from The Tonight Show for the second time, the torch was passed not to O’Brien, but to O’Brien’s own successor on Late Night, Jimmy Fallon. Indeed, in just five years, O’Brien has passed from being the next big thing to becoming the old man of the late night airwaves as Letterman and Ferguson have announced their departures.

The irony is that O’Brien seems to have accepted the argument that a show’s brand is really its host. His current show on TBS is called Conan. His show is now the least-watched in the crowded late-night market, but then he doesn’t have any compatible lead-in programming. He seems, still, to be trying to present the perfect replacement to the Johnny Carson Tonight Show.

Note that none of the above addresses the proverbial elephant: are any of these guys funny? Conan’s YouTube clips and footage of him performing at the Emmy Awards say yes. We in the UK get to see more of his work from next week. Will we live happily ever after? It’s your call.

Conan is on the TruTV channel at 11.00pm from 4 August.

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