There is a moment somewhere in the thick of The Late Shift — an amazing book detailing how NBC shafted David Letterman out of succeeding Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show — where Letterman considers an offer from the network to retake the show after Jay Leno has been doing it awhile.
Letterman is initially excited until a friend reminds him: They're not giving you Carson's legendary Tonight Show anymore. Letterman would get Leno's show; instead, he went to CBS.
And now, NBC seems poised to do the same thing to another rising star moving up from the wilds of late, late-night TV, Conan O'Brien.
O'Brien's last episode of his 12:35 a.m. Late Night show airs Friday, giving the carrot-topped comic 14 weeks to develop his own version of the Tonight Show for a June 1 debut. But NBC has also given Leno a 10 p.m. show this fall — weeks before a recent Harris poll named him TV's most popular personality — featuring his monologue, celebrity interviews and signature skits such as Jaywalking and Headlines.
So is O'Brien really getting the Tonight Show?
"Look, I like Jay and I don't want to be the guy who was in any way perceived as pushing Jay out. . . . I didn't want Jay's Tonight Show to end that way or mine to start that way," O'Brien said in Los Angeles last month. "I thought (Leno leaving) would just be bad for both of us."
But the transition, clumsy and ill-timed, looks to threaten an important part of the broadcast day where NBC still dominates. Saturday Night Live alum Jimmy Fallon debuts first, with his 12:35 a.m. Late Night starting March 2; Leno leaves May 29, only to return in the fall in the 10 p.m. slot.
Critics predict CBS, fortified with Letterman and a steadily growing Late Late Show hosted by Craig Ferguson, will benefit most from the shuffle.
"If Jay Leno is a success at 10 p.m. . . . will people go to sleep after that because they've had their late-night (fix)?" said Peter Lassally, executive producer of Ferguson's show and the former Carson producer who reminded Letterman which Tonight Show NBC finally offered him. "I've always felt that the competition on a late-night show is not so much your opposition, but sleep."
Ferguson had a novel suggestion for critics tempted to parse all the possibilities now. "I challenge you: Give Jimmy a month before you review him," he told TV critics in January. "I've heard some negative stuff about Jimmy, which I find a little surprising given the fact he hasn't done anything yet. He's kind of like the reverse Barack Obama."
Sorry, Craig, but we can't wait that long.
Here's a quick list of who's expected to win — and lose — in the coming late-night shuffle.
With CBS expected to back up a money truck to keep him past the 2010 expiration of his latest contract, Letterman is poised to become the grand old man of late-night TV in a way he never could when Leno began beating him in the ratings many years ago.
The Scottish comic likes to say his show is growing in popularity because "we don't hide how crappy we are." But it's more likely viewers are drawn by his quick wit and a steadily improving format. Watch his opening monologue to see the 10 funniest minutes anywhere on network TV.
First, he outfoxes NBC by making them give him five hours of prime time each week instead of putting him out to pasture. Next, he creates a challenge a workaholic like him relishes: succeeding in prime time. Remember: He took only a couple of years to beat much better-regarded rival Letterman in the ratings.
No matter what he says publicly, everyone knows NBC essentially will move the best parts of Leno's Tonight Show to 10 p.m. this fall. And by moving to Los Angeles, O'Brien becomes just one more of six nighttime network talk show hosts based on the West Coast.
O'Brien got more than two years to stumble around at 12:35 a.m., making awful shows until he found his voice. With Ferguson and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel airing against him, Fallon likely won't get nearly that much time.
Conventional wisdom says he'll gain viewers disenchanted by the moves at NBC. But Leno didn't make the move to ABC, leaving Kimmel with newsmagazine Nightline as an odd lead-in and little possibility he can soon move up to 11:35 p.m.