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TV Tonight: See You Later, Jay. Or Actually, Sooner

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Tonight, Jay Leno hosts his last Tonight Show. Last night, Prince and Billy Crystal saluted Jay, while he remembered some of his classic comedy bits. Question: does he really want to remind us of The Dancing Itos? In fact, watching the retrospective, I couldn’t help but think that a lot of that comedy would look awfully corny in the context of 10 p.m. E.T. But then it looks corny to me at 11:30 p.m. E.T., so who am I to say?


And next Monday night, Conan O’Brien hosts his first. You do remember that Conan is taking over, right? 

It’s not as if the transition on The Tonight Show has gotten no publicity whatsoever. But I’m still a little amazed when I look at the contrast between the walkup to Jay Leno’s taking the desk—which was heralded practically like a Presidential inauguration—and the decent-but-hardly-overwhelming publicity blitz for Conan. (Granted, NBC has been running TV ads for him. Unfortunately, it chose to run them on NBC.)

Of course, things are different today then they were in 1992. A few of the reasons:

* Jay Leno was taking over for living legend Johnny Carson. Conan O’Brien is taking over for the guy who took over for living legend Johnny Carson. 

* Jay Leno was an outside entity—well, sort of, considering he had constantly served as guest-host for Johnny before taking over. But the transition now is like a sitting vice-president become president. (While the current president stays on to become some kind of super-president.) 

* The big network late-night shows simply don’t matter the way they did then. There are more of them, on more channels, and at more times. The attention is diffuse, and the buzzier comedy action is often in places like Comedy Central anyway.

* By giving Jay Leno the 10 p.m. slot in the fall, NBC has made that into the big story, and everything that’s happening right now seems like an anticlimax. 

The last factor should be one worrying NBC. They already run the risk that Jay’s 10 p.m. show might not just draw lower ratings than its old 10 p.m. dramas but, by lowering the lead-in ratings for local news, could also weaken Conan’s numbers come fall. Which means that Conan needs as big a head-start as he can get right now. And having Jay Leno create a publicity vacuum doesn’t help with that. 

On the other hand, maybe it’ll be better for Conan not to have quite as intense a spotlight. In the meantime, Jay has also made his own departure into less of an event, since it’s less a “goodbye” than a “have a nice three months off.” 

But you tell me. Anyone out there planning to check out Jay’s last show? Anyone eager for Conan’s?