Is the story really about Conan vs. Jay? Or is it about the inevitable death of network TV?


NBC has provided lots of drama about their late night line-up for a week or so, and as a long-time insomniac I have watched with interest. I have always loved the Tonight Show, and I am old enough to remember Jack Paar. Johnny Carson was always a favorite of mine. Over the years I developed a slight preference for the goofy David Letterman over the more mainstream Jay Leno, but I watched them both now and again.

And I was pleased when Conan O’Brien, who I always thought was very funny, was given the Tonight Show last fall, bringing his edgy manic physical comedy to the show, and we stayed up to watch the monologues fairly regularly for the first week or so.

I wondered what would happen when NBC gave Jay Leno a 10 o’clock show. It didn’t seem like a great idea to me, and to tell you the truth, we never watched it. So I wasn’t suprised when a number of NBC affiliates started complaining that Leno was killing their ratings (which lead into their 11 o’clock news shows, which advertisers still like).

Then NBC responded by trying to insert Jay back at 11:35 and move Conan to 12:05. Then Conan balked at the move, saying it wouldn’t be the Tonight Show after 12 (true), and the drama heightened.  I thought Conan got a raw deal, and both he and Leno made comedic hay out of the situation. As Letterman said the other night, “Haven’t you all had enough of this whole NBC late night drama thing?” and then answered his own question: “Neither have I.”

But when I mentioned the kurfuffle to my twenty-seven year old son, he blithely remarked that it really doesn’t matter what happens because network television is in its last days.  “It’s over,” he said, “they just haven’t got the memo.”

And I got to ruminating about it and I think he may be right. I have thought about the future of newspapers a lot (see my interview with Martin Langeveld), but not so much about television.  But as I thought more about it I realized that the Leno-O’Brien late-night contest is akin to two fine musicians fighting over who is to be the next bandleader on the Titanic.

The reason is simple: fewer viewers with no end in sight to the decline. And then I realized that even though I was interested in the story, I had followed most of it on my laptop, reading on-line accounts and watching clips on YouTube.  If lots of people are doing this it drains away viewers.

So the trend is easy to spot as the proliferation of entertainment options fragments the viewing audience. When Johnny Carson was king of late night the Tonight Show was a destination for  many viewers. Now they have lots of other places to go. There was no cable to offer hundreds of options. There was no PayPerView or NetFlicks. You didn’t have massive multi-player on-line role playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft (which alone has something like 12 million paid subscribers.)

In Carson’s day people weren’t reading (or writing) blogs, or checking their Facebook or My Space page, or tweeting on Twitter. They weren’t listening to their personal radio stations on Pandora.  They weren’t watching videos on their IPods or cell phones.

And things are going to get worse for the networks because the options are only going to expand.  The next generation of e-books like Kindle will be able to have color for graphics to view magazines, so people can subscribe and get them wirelessly, like they already can on their computer. And many of the new BluRay players already allow you to get streaming video on demand from your wireless connection to your television. And Tivo and DVR recorders already allow you to watch your programs without commercials anytime you want. So more and more people watch what they want to watch when they want to watch it.

I look at my twenty-something kids and realize that they don’t really watch TV, except NFL football (in my son’s case), or to watch DVD rentals (in my daughter’s). If this is typical of their generation then advertisers will want less and less to throw big money at network broadcasting that fewer and fewer people are watching.

So the fall of late night is not the fault of Jay and Conan, who are both talented and funny men. It is the result of a changing world and the way people access media. NBC hasn’t helped themselves any with some questionable moves, but they are fighting a war of attrition that they can’t win.  Game over.

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