Today, Conan O’Brien finally assumes the chair of The Tonight Show and begins a glorious three-month reign as NBC’s chief nightly talk-show host. Already the speculation is running hot as to whether can retain Jay Leno’s audience, as Jay himself gets ready to settle into the timeslot an hour and a half ahead of Conan in the fall.
Most of the speculation centers on Conan’s comedy style, and whether it’s too hip, ironic or outre for the older 11:30 audience. My hunch, though, is that people overestimate the effect of the host’s comedy on the success of a late-night show. I mean, sure, it matters. David Letterman famously toned down some of his 12:30 absurdism when he moved to the prime slot on CBS. But really, at heart, a Letterman show is still a Letterman show.
What matters most, I think, is the host’s personality. And I don’t think Conan is the radical change for 11:30 that people make him out to be. Whatever comedy bits he introduces or brings with him, as a host, he’s a pleaser—really, he’s much closer to the sensibility of an 11:30 host than the bristly Letterman was when he made the transition. I’m sure some of Jay’s older viewers will see him as a smart-ass, but I suspect plenty will find him, well, a nice young man.
So how well is Conan going to do? I’m terrible at ratings predictions, but my guess is that—after a big initial tune-in from curiosity—he settles in, loses some ground to Letterman (as you’d expect for a new host), but the ratings ultimately stay fairly stable.
At first. But when Jay starts at 10 p.m. in September, that has the potential to put a double whammy on Conan—first by lowering his lead-in (even NBC says they don’t expect Jay to rate as well as original dramas did in the timeslot), and by cannibalizing his old viewers, who may just watch him and then change the channel or go to bed early.
But as I say, history is littered with my faulty ratings predictions, so I put it to you. How do you think Conan will do, first this summer, and then in the fall? And do you plan on changing your late-night viewing habits at all?