It’s not science, religion, the market or morals, but I gotta ask: Conan or Jay? I don’t watch either one, and I really don’t care, though it should be said that Jay Leno has a professional reputation as a genuinely decent man. My instinct is to side with Conan O’Brien because I find his sensibility more interesting than Leno’s, but the NYT’s Mike Hale makes some sensible contra-Conan points about this controversy. Excerpt:
The demonizing of Mr. Leno and corresponding beatification of Mr. O’Brien seem to be based on some weird notion of noblesse oblige: that ceding the stage to Mr. O’Brien would be the proper thing to do. This ignores the obvious facts that (1) television is a business and (2) it’s NBC’s money. Mr. Leno, his predictably dismal prime-time ratings aside, is the reigning king of late night; NBC wouldn’t be at this pass if it didn’t think that he could immediately return to 11:35 and outperform Mr. O’Brien.
It seems obvious that what’s really at play here is a generation gap. A younger, more vocal, more online audience simply doesn’t like Mr. Leno’s show, which has gradually come to represent an entire pre-digital, Middle American culture that the Internet commentariat wishes would just get out of the way. Unfortunately for them, their parents are more likely to be watching television at 11:35 p.m. than they are.
This is exactly right. No doubt, NBC handled this about as badly as it could possibly be handled. The fact is, though, both the network and its local affiliates are hemorrhaging revenue because not enough people watch Leno early, and not enough people watch Conan late. This is occurring amid a general ad revenue debacle related to the Great Recession and the collapse of the traditional media ad model. What’s NBC supposed to do, sit around and continue to lose gobs of money (likewise for the local affiliates) to keep the Twitterverse from being mad at them? To preserve a sense of professional honor?
It’s insulting what’s happening to Conan O’Brien, but he simply isn’t getting the ratings in that time slot; Jay Leno was, and might again. I wonder how many people who are angry on Conan’s behalf actually watch his Tonight Show?