The late-night wars are heating up again, as you have no doubt noticed. You know the sh*t got real when Bill Carter — the man who has been documenting the late-night wars for two decades — got involved, first breaking the story about Jimmy Fallon moving The Tonight Show to New York. Personally, as a fan of both of Carter’s books on the late night wars — The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy and The Late Shift — I love the drama, the acrimony, the back-biting and the pettiness (mostly on Leno’s behalf). In fact, since Jay Leno has been at the center of all the most heated late-night wars over the years, I’ll be sad to see him go for that reason alone (although, don’t rule out the possibility that Leno tries to land somewhere else, say, Fox or Showtime).
Not everyone agrees. Linda Holmes over on NPR, for instance, thinks the late-night wars are boring, but I think she’s wrong. During late-night wars, ratings tend to increase because people show more interest, and when the jobs of certain hosts are threatened, we stop taking them for granted. When Letterman does announce his retirement, for instance, I’m going to be a mess. I barely watch the guy anymore, but you can bet your ass I’ll be watching in the months leading toward his retirement. I take him for granted now, but losing Letterman will be like losing a family member.
There’s real human drama involved. There’s a lot at stake, as the losses of Conan and Letterman over the years have demonstrated. If you haven’t seen Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop — a film basically documenting O’Brien’s breakdown — you really should check it out. It’s fascinating, funny and heartbreaking and kind of self-indulgent. I certainly wish that Letterman had gotten The Tonight Show way back when, but I’m not sure he’d be the same guy. I think his sense of competition — and you know he feels driven by his feud with Leno — has kept him at the level he’s been at for the last 20 years. Competition is good.
As someone keenly interested in the late-night wars, I also keep up with it all. I read everything I can about it, although most news stories simply rehash most of the fact. If you want to avoid all the details without having to wade through all the recycled material, here are bullet points in the late night wars from the last day or two.
— Leno may still command the highest ratings on late night, but there is a reason that NBC is eager to replace him besides wanting to ensure that Kimmel doesn’t lock up the new generation of viewers: Advertising revenue on The Tonight Show has dropped 41 percent since 2007. Fallon could potentially draw a younger, more advertising friendly audience, which could see ad revenue on The Tonight Show increase, even if the ratings do not.
— They think, over on Salon, that Fallon can save both The Tonight Show and NBC. Leno is one of the few people in late night that hasn’t been tarnished by the wars. He’s likable to both old and young audiences, “all smooth surfaces and lulling bedtime-appropriate bits.”
— Several interesting names have come up as potential replacements for Fallon, once he takes over The Tonight Show. Seth Meyers seems to be the most frequently named possibility. Chelsea Handler has also been mentioned, and while I do like the idea of a female taking over the slot, I hope it’s not her. Daniel Tosh has also been mentioned, but I hate that idea. One name that’s been mentioned in a few places that I LOVE is Joel McHale. How great would that be? There was some silliness about Howard Stern taking the slot, too, but I think we can all dismiss that notion.
— If Seth Meyers does take over “Late Night,” that will basically mean that Lorne Michaels controls all three of NBC’s late night properties, having installed the hosts.
— Speaking of Kimmel, he’s getting a huge kick out of this. Asked if he feels responsible for the somewhat abrupt move, given that Kimmel’s move to 11:30 forced the issue, Kimmel told Jake Tapper: “God, I hope so,” and then laughed with delight.
— On the other hand, poor Conan O’Brien. The once host of The Tonight Show forced out by NBC is now little more than an afterthought, so writes The Atlantic. It must feel like NBC is twisting the knife in his back, going through all of that hullabaloo a couple of years ago to replace Conan with Leno only to replace Leno again with Fallon such a short time later.
— I don’t know how much truth there is to this, but one source is claiming that Leno actually started the Fallon rumors “to put the network brass on the defense.” If it is true, Leno really IS a snake.
— Interestingly, although NBC hasn’t confirmed that Jimmy Fallon will take over The Tonight Show, nor confirmed that it will relocate to New York City, it seems that SOMEONE has had discussions with New York lawmakers, as there’s a tax-break provision in the new state budget for, specifically, “a talk or variety program that filmed at least five seasons outside the state prior to its first relocated season in New York … and must be filmed before a studio audience” of at least 200 people. Moreover, the program must have an annual production budget of at least $30 million or incur at least $10 million in capital expenses. So, there’s a tax provision in the budget that essentially applies to ONE show.
— Meanwhile, Burbank doesn’t want to lose The Tonight Show, as Burbank Mayor Dave Golonski is drafting a letter to NBC trying to persuade the network to keep the show in California.
— We should not expect Fallon to take over The Tonight Show until September 2014, which is when Leno’s contract expires. He has provisions in his contract, according to TMZ, with huge, exorbitant penalties for NBC if he’s replaced any earlier than that.
— This seems like a complete non-issue, but EW speculates that there could be a booking war with Letterman and Fallon if Fallon moves, as guests may have to decide between the two shows. That seems kind of silly since 1) if their studios are in the same city, there’s no reason that guests can’t zip between the two, and since late-night talk shows are not aired live, they can certainly be flexible, and 2) if a guest is in New York City for one night, I’m sure most can swing hanging around for another.
— Conversely, the move certainly would help Jimmy Kimmel, who would be the only 11:30 show in Los Angeles and would have a monopoly on Hollywood guests, and especially musical acts, so says THR. But it would also give New York City a late-night talk show host who is progressive with music lots of booking opportunities.
— One thing that people haven’t been talking about that much is Letterman’s inevitable retirement. One theory — that I made up myself — is that Jon Stewart’s three-month break this summer is not only designed to allow him to direct his movie, but also to allow John Oliver a chance to see how he does behind The Daily Show desk should Stewart — as I expect — replace Letterman in the not too distant future.
— Speaking of Stewart, THR talks about the difficulty Comedy Central faces this summer without Jon Stewart, the challenge it poses to The Daily Show brand, and the concerns it may raise for Stephen Colbert.