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NBC's Conanundrum: Is Jay the Smart Choice?

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Let me take off my TV-critic hat for a minute and put on my TV-business hat. Everyone’s assumption now—a well-founded one, it seems—is that, forced to choose between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, NBC will pick Jay. Leaving aside fairness, funniness or cosmic justice, is that the right business pick?

Short-term, I have to say: definitely. Leno will get better ratings than O’Brien is getting, period. And because NBC either can’t afford or is no longer capable of long-term thinking, that probably ends it.

Long-term, it may still be the smarter pick, but the question becomes much tougher.

Jay will get better ratings than Conan. But will he get the same ratings he did before he left the Tonight Show? There I’m not sure.

I’m not talking about “his brand being damaged,” which I think is a bunch of hoo-hah. People want to watch a late-night show that will entertain them. They will not be entertained less because the host washed out of his prime-time time slot.

Nor do I mean blowback from Conan’s screwing-over by NBC. Except for a handful of us, rational people do not watch late-night shows as a statement of conscience. The angry Conan fans who will never watch Jay would never watch him anyway. Beyond that, the audience will probably no more care how Jay gets back in the Tonight Show chair than they did when he outmaneuvered David Letterman.

No, I just mean simple audience loss. Late-night is all about habit. Once you break an established pattern, you break habits. Some Jay fans—maybe not most, but maybe enough to make a difference—gravitated over to Dave last summer, and Jay cannot count on them back. Nothing personal: just habits.

Despite which, Jay could very likely beat Dave when he comes back anyway. But it may be by a smaller margin. And as opposed to in the ’90s, when Jay as a new host was able to grow his audience, I’m not sure that Jay, a known commodity at 11:35 for over two decades, has any room to grow. He might. But he might instead be starting the Tonight Show with as many viewers as he will ever have again.

And let’s be blunt: those viewers will be older. And if the past is a guide, they will continue to grow older. As Jay has pointed out, he always did better with young viewers than he got credit for, because his overall numbers were so high. But Conan made Tonight younger overnight, and it will age back—a big consideration for ad revenue—overnight. And again because of the force of habit, that audience will age.

After which, by the way: who takes over when Jay finally retires (or, like Johnny Carson, essentially gets retired)? Jimmy Fallon?

Which is not to say that picking Conan instead is any sort of slam-dunk. I love Conan, and he hasn’t gotten the time Jay did (under better circumstances) to build an audience. But he was in late-night for 16 years himself: it may be that he has his audience and it is just never going to get bigger.

It also may be—and NBC has to be thinking of this—that if Conan goes to Fox, he will hurt David Letterman (with the second half-hour of an 11 p.m. Fox show) much more than he will hurt Jay, with whom his audience overlaps less.

But it is also possible that Conan can in fact—like Jay and Dave at similar stages in their careers—develop a bigger 11:35 audience, or that the audience will change (demographically and in its tastes) to like him better. It’s not guaranteed, by any means. But it’s enough of a possibility that I’m surprised we don’t hear more about at least the possibility of NBC picking Conan instead.

The bottom line is that Jay is certainly the better short-term pick. Long-term, Conan has more upside and more downside. And that may be what does him in. NBC has very likely decided to get out of the risk-taking business.