Somebody at the Los Angeles Times had the temerity to compare Conan O’Brien taking over “The Tonight Show” to when Dan Rather replaced Walter Cronkite at the CBS Evening News. Uh huh. Okay. Sure.
A TV personality is at the top of his game in the ratings, but his underling wants a shot too and may jump to a rival network, so a plan is hatched to ease the aging incumbent out and put in the younger up-and-comer.
Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien?
No, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. In all the celebrations of Cronkite’s life and career it’s easy to forget the awkward behind-the-scenes machinations that led to CBS News’ messy transition from the Most Trusted Man in America to Dan-What’s-the-Frequency-Kenneth-Rather and how eerily it mirrors NBC’s late-night situation.
Like Leno, Cronkite vacated his chair in first place and earlier than anticipated. Like O’Brien, Rather inherited the chair because the network was afraid of losing him to a rival. While Cronkite was 65 at a time when that retirement age was actually taken seriously, the fear of Rather jumping to ABC is what drove CBS to make the shift when it did.
And like Rather did in his first few months in the chair, O’Brien is struggling in the ratings. Since premiering with more than 7 million viewers, O’Brien’s audience has fallen off dramatically and he now trails CBS’ David Letterman in viewers and his lead in key demographics is shrinking fast.
I appreciate the thought experiment; really, I do. But… DUDE. You can compare Johnny Carson to Walter Cronkite, and you can compare Jay Leno to, say, Geraldo Rivera. But comparing Leno to Cronkite… where’s my head-exploding .gif file? I’m going to need my had-exploding .gif for this. Ah, there we go. Much better.