Columbus, campus react to ‘Tonight Show’ shake-up

As the late-night wars continue to shake out, Columbus viewers are taking sides.

On Jan. 15, NBC offered Conan O’Brien, then host of “The Tonight Show,” an ultimatum: move the show back 30 minutes to accommodate “The Jay Leno Show” at 11:35 p.m. or hit the road. O’Brien refused and was fired, airing his last episode on Jan. 22, putting Leno back at the helm of “The Tonight Show.”

Dan Bradley, vice president and general manager of WCMH, Columbus’ NBC affiliate, said the culprit for the move was falling ratings and revenue.

“Millions of dollars were being lost by the poor decision that was made somewhere to end Leno’s contract as early as it did, promote Conan as early as it did, and the absolutely crazy idea of putting Leno in at 10 p.m.,” he said. “I can’t give you a dollar figure, but our revenue numbers for the fourth quarter last year were down significantly. Some of that was economy driven. A lot of it was ratings driven.”

Bradley said O’Brien’s failure with “The Tonight Show” was a misunderstanding of his new audience.

“I think Conan’s mistake was that he brought all of the same writers and all of the same producers that produced his program at 12:30 a.m. in New York City,” Bradley said. “He just moved them all out to California and he basically tried to recreate what he did at 12:30 a.m. at 11:30 p.m. and that’s a significantly different audience.”

Despite failing to win over the 11:35 p.m. viewers, O’Brien’s fans have been making noise, staging rallies and bolstering support on the Internet. The “I’m with COCO” Facebook page, created by California-based graphic designer Mike Mitchell, has more than 980,000 members.

Loyalty among O’Brien’s fan base can be attributed to the intimacy of television, according to J. Max Robins, vice president and executive director of Industry Programs at the Paley Center for Media in New York.

“People don’t generally say, ‘I watch ‘The Tonight Show’ or ‘I watch ‘The Late Show.’ They say ‘I watch Letterman’ or ‘I watch Leno,’ or ‘I watch Conan,’” Robins said. “It’s almost like they develop an attachment to these people and you go to bed with these people.”

Nathan Varrone, a second-year English and theater major, and comedian in the 8th Floor Improv Comedy Group, has a strong affection for O’Brien.

“I have been a die-hard fan of Conan O’Brien since I was in the sixth grade,” Varrone said in an e-mail. “He was my first comedic influence and I honestly can say that I don’t know if I would be pursuing a career in the field of comedy if it weren’t for him.”

Varrone said O’Brien is respected among comedians because of his career path.

“Comedically, Conan is well respected because he started out as a writer,” he said. “He’s so respected by many younger comedians because he kept on being him.”

Though Leno continues to garner solid ratings, the show is struggling to win over younger viewers. Leno’s return to “The Tonight Show” on March 1 drew 1.6 million viewers ages 18-49, down 58 percent from O’Brien’s first episode of “The Tonight Show,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.

“I don’t like [Leno] as much as Conan because he uses a lot of stale jokes,” said John Na, a third-year art student.

Adam Reighley, a third-year hospitality management student, feels differently.

“I like [Leno’s] monologue at the beginning. I think that it’s witty and it’s not as out there as Conan,” Reighley said.

Though O’Brien’s settlement with NBC forbids him from hosting another television program until Sept. 1, fans are buzzing over O’Brien’s 30 city summer tour, titled “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour,” as well as talk that O’Brien is being recruited by Fox for a late-night program.

“Ideally, he’d be back on ‘The Tonight Show’ because it was his dream job,” Na said. “I guess Fox wants to pick him up.”

With Leno regaining the No. 1 spot for “The Tonight Show” in late-night ratings, NBC now faces the prospect of rebuilding its programming in the prized prime-time block. For the week ending March 14, only one NBC program, “The Office,” cracked the top 20 in prime-time ratings, according to Nielsen Co. data.

NBC “still has to come up with some consistent, stronger programming for the most important time period here, the 10 p.m. hour,” Bradley said. “That’s a much bigger problem for NBC.”

[This story ran in The Lantern on March 31, 2010 but was not posted on the Web site.]

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