From the E-Mailbag…

Stephen Robinson writes…

This is all very interesting timing for Fallon. He gets Late Night because Conan left to do the Tonight Show. And Conan's failure in that slot paved the way for Fallon to get the Tonight Show despite having less than five years experience as a talk show host when the transition occurs.

I can't help wondering what would have happened if Conan had accepted NBC's offer to host the Tonight Show at midnight after a half-hour Leno. Would Fallon have survived if his show had been pushed back an hour?

I know some celebrities, including Seinfeld, thought Conan should support the network and make the move. Was there a scenario in which he did this and got to move back to 11:30 in 2014?

Still have trouble seeing why NBC thinks Fallon will do better than Conan at 11:30. It seems like NBC keeps trying to replace Letterman as host rather than Leno, who always did better in the ratings. Is there no one out there who has Leno's mainstream appeal?

When Conan wrote his infamous letter saying he wouldn't tolerate The Tonight Show being moved to 12:05, he said it was because he felt the move was injurious to a great tradition. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that he meant that when he wrote it but I think it also would have been a terrible career move for him to go along with it. First off, it was kind of a public, insulting declaration that he couldn't handle the job he'd been given. Better to go down swinging than accept a demotion. Secondly, imagine two scenarios…

If they'd done it and ratings had gone significantly up, it would have been proof that Jay at 11:35 was just better for the network than Conan at 11:35. The next logical step would have been for many to wonder aloud, "Gee, if a half-hour of Jay there boosted the ratings that much, what would an hour do?" Then Conan winds up either off the air or back at 12:35, right where he was and with history reporting that he bombed when they tried to move him up. On the other hand, had they installed Leno at 11:35 and ratings either stayed the same or went down, no one would have blamed Jay. He'd already proved he could handle 11:35. The next logical step then would have been to try a full hour of Jay like the old days when his show worked. I just don't see a scenario in there where Conan had a chance to win.

If you asked the NBC execs why they thought Fallon would do better at 11:35, I would imagine they'd say something like this: Because we think Fallon will do a better show. His recent ratings at 12:35 are more impressive than O'Brien's last year of ratings at that time. (O'Brien was having trouble beating Craig Ferguson. Fallon doesn't.)

If some reports are true, one of the reasons NBC lost faith in Conan was because they felt they were offering Conan good notes on how to improve the show…and Conan and his people didn't feel the show needed any improving; just better promotion and lead-ins. That's pretty much what the producers of every show say when the ratings are disappointing and sometimes, it's valid. In this case, NBC felt they were giving Conan more-than-sufficient promotion and as for stronger lead-ins at 10 PM…they didn't have any then and haven't had any since. If they still aired The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, its lead-ins today would be even weaker than they were during that seven month period.

They seem to feel Fallon will be more cooperative and that he does have the kind of mainstream appeal Leno has had. The working theory here is that Conan couldn't get the younger viewers without losing the older ones but that Fallon can. Are they right? If networks always or even usually were, they wouldn't wind up canceling most of the new shows they put on.

From James Tobey comes this…

I don't follow the late night situation closely but NPR this evening said sources are saying it's about the future, specifically how media will be viewed. They compared Leno's 500,000 Twitter followers to Fallon's 6,000,000. Do you think the landscape will change that much, that quickly?

Yeah. It wouldn't surprise me if the discrepancy between Fallon's online presence and Leno's is a major factor in this decision. All the networks are wrestling with how the Internet is changing their industry. It's not insignificant that Conan did (and still does) so many bits designed to remind you he can be followed on Twitter. Jay's staff tweets often in his name but all it usually is is retreads of his monologue and retweeted messages by guests saying, "Hey, I'm on Leno tonight." Jay may be ahead of everyone else in the Nielsens but he's running way behind in the Tweets.

Someone named Sammo writes…

I see the New York Post quoting the head of the affiliate board at Fox as saying they're open to the idea of Leno at 11 PM. Why would they be interested? Doesn't Fox ruthlessly pursue younger viewers?

Yes but Fox becomes a slightly different business after 10 PM when most of its stations air their local news. Local news is not as driven by demographics as entertainment programming. In some markets, they don't care much about the age of their audiences. They kinda figure they've already lost the kids. That age bracket is not as interested in news (the theory goes) and if it is, those folks will get theirs online or they're over watching Jon Stewart. Local news is mainly for two groups: People who are used to getting theirs that way and those who want to watch timely sports highlights. One of the few things you can't get on the Internet, at least immediately, is footage from that night's major sporting events.

That's why NBC's affiliates rebelled loudly when they had that 10 PM Leno show delivering fewer viewers to their 11 PM newscasts. Yeah, Jay's show was more profitable for the parent network because it was cheaper but that didn't help local newscasts. They also rebelled against Conan as a lead-out. A lot of the viewership that local newscasts get is from people tuning the news in while they wait for the 11:35 program of their choice. Conan's more favorable demographics helped the network sell commercial time during his broadcasts but that also wasn't helpful to local newscasts in most areas. In his book on it all, The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy, Bill Carter said that when NBC was wrestling with the idea of bumping Conan and putting Leno back at 11:35, they asked Michael Fiorile, who was the head of their affiliate board…

Fiorile possessed evidence that the affiliate body did not disagree. NBC had asked him what the local stations' preference would be at 11:35. Fiorile had quietly polled the affiliate board. The stations had long experience with Jay. (And the age group most of them occupied did not fall anywhere near the core audience of eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-olds that idolized Conan.) So it was little surprise whom the station owners preferred. Not one voted for Conan.

If you ever wondered why NBC put Jay Leno back on at 11:35, that's most of the reason right there. Even though those same station owners desperately wanted him out of the 10 PM slot, they all wanted him back on at 11:35. No word on how they feel about Fallon going in there in his place.

One of the reasons Conan wanted to go to Fox was that his people felt that promotion on Fox shows was a potent weapon for him; that one promo on The Simpsons was worth ten plugs on even the youngest-skewing NBC prime-time series. I don't think Jay would benefit in quite the same way but it might "young up" his audience a bit. I suspect Jay on Fox would also have the first pick on guest stars in Hollywood.

Yesterday, I said here that a Leno move to Fox didn't feel likely to me. It feels a little more likely in light of this report. At the very least, it may complicate whatever dickering and negotiations are now in progress between Jay and NBC. Suddenly, that network has more reason to try and scuttle Leno's remaining months on The Tonight Show, to get him off the air soon and to keep him contractually unable to go right back on opposite them. That's probably the main thing they're arguing about now.

Ah…welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends.