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Late-Night Lessons Learned? January 21, 2010

Posted by David Card in Media.
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Act II of the latest soap opera over late-night talk seems to be drawing to a conclusion. (Haven’t we seen this before?) Act III concludes when Conan O’Brien shows up on Fox — more likely FX — or Comedy Central, I guess. The action was fun, in a nasty, massive Hollywood ego-puffing sort of way, but have we learned anything?

David Carr’s New York Times piece suggests talkshows were old-school search engines, summing up the day’s highlights as we drifted off to sleep. As such, they’re unnecessary now, replaced by online, on-demand substitutes.

David Letterman disagrees. He proposes that there’s room for  everybody, about 4 minutes in to this very funny bit. Maybe, as the Wall Street Journal says, the lessons are just in succession planning.

Always a maverick, Mark Cuban thinks NBC’s failed attempt to move Jay Leno into prime time was a ballsy attempt to address the crazily out-of-whack economics of network TV.

I don’t disagree, but then I wonder why no one’s asking NBC chief Jeff Zucker why it didn’t work. At the time, he said NBC’s lower ratings would be more than compensated by its lower cost of production. Leno’s ratings were better at 10PM than they had been at 11:30, and though they were pretty shabby compared to big 10PM hit dramas, they were in line with what NBC expected. That should have resulted in a profitable, cheaper-to-produce strip for NBC. Did it? Or did advertisers pay even less? Or did the audiences lost by local affils from Leno’s weaker 10PM lead-in kill the experiment?  Or was it the additional audience going to CBS and ABC at 10, not to mention at  11:30? (Letterman was killing Conan where Jay had previously been number one.)

So what should Conan do next? Neither Fox, ABC or cable is going to pay him like NBC did, but I suppose a $30 million buy-out can tide you over for a while. I don’t think any real pundits has suggested he go online/digital-only, though I think I saw some reader comments to that effect. That’s a bad idea; the money’s not there yet. But wherever he ends up, he should follow James McQuivey’s advice to Oprah and accommodate the new media, if not optimize for them.

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