The great "Jay Leno Show" experiment has failed. NBC will likely move Leno back to the 11:30 slot he had improbably dominated for more than a decade. Conan gets screwed. Which is weird, because this is completely Jay Leno's fault.
Leno won the ratings battle over Letterman for all those years because, in the cult of personality that is late night television, Leno's persona straddled the middle of the road so exactly that he basically turned into the road. That is, the default late-night viewer was a "Tonight Show" viewer. Letterman fans were deviant; there was something sort of weird—daddy issues?—that made them seek out Letterman's snooty New York mien and comedy bits whose deadpan absurdity borders on nihilism. (And what's with that name? "Letterman"? Sounds Jewish!)
So, yeah, the lowest-common-denominator thing worked great in late-night. But it is a terrible strategy for prime-time. NBC knew this; Jay Leno knew it. Before "The Jay Leno Show" premiered in September he told MSNBC: "Hopefully it won't look like a talk show." In fact "The Jay Leno Show" was envisioned as a kind of hybrid variety hour/"Daily Show," with diverse comedy "correspondents," fewer musical guests, a "more urgent, topical tone," and lower-profile for its host. This would have been good, as a show can't compete with scripted network dramas and myriad highly-targeted cable shows on the strength of a host's non-threatening marshmallow persona alone.
Didn't work out that way. The "Jay Leno Show" is basically Leno's "Tonight Show" in a different time-slot. Same easy folksy humor, same insufferable sit-downs with the kind of celebrity fashioned from recycled "US Weekly"s, and "Jaywalking." Fucking "Jaywalking." Leno had to change, but he didn't (or couldn't). No wonder ratings tanked so hard that affiliates began complaining of a "Leno Effect" dragging down the local newscasts that followed. Soon, Leno was hinting that he wouldn't mind taking his 11:30 slot back from Conan even while Leno's ratings poison was helping Conan's "Tonight Show" lose to Letterman night after night.
(Not that Conan was built for mass appeal in the first place. Do you remember seeing "Late Night" for the first time and being filled with the giddy confusion of someone knocked off his feet by a sleeper wave on a clear day at the beach? A lot of people spend their whole lives trying to make sure this never happens to them.)
Poor Conan! It looks he'll wear Leno about his neck like a pudgy millstone until the day his pompadour gets caught in a ceiling fan and propels him to the sweet relief of everlasting dark. With Leno's likely move to 11:30, Conan is forced now to choose between the indignity of again getting Leno's sloppy seconds at midnight, or grovelling at the feet of one of the networks he turned down the first time around. Meanwhile NBC, blinded by nostalgia, is making it clear that Leno is still their man. According to Variety:
If it comes down to Leno vs. O'Brien, now that NBC has seen how both perform at 11:30, the network was apparently ready to put its support behind Leno.
The universe sucks, and so does Jay Leno. Blame Leno.