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Correction to This Article
The article mischaracterized news releases from ABC comparing the viewership of "Nightline" with that of "The Late Show" and "The Tonight Show" among adults between the ages of 25 and 54. "Nightline" beat those two programs in some markets, but not nationally.

Tom Shales Column: Conan O'Brien Replaces Jay Leno as 'Tonight Show' Host

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By Tom Shales
Thursday, May 28, 2009

It's tempting to look upon Conan O'Brien's ascent to "The Tonight Show" as a new chapter in the saga "Conan Grows Up." If Conan grew up, however, he wouldn't be Conan. And he probably wouldn't be ascending to "The Tonight Show," taking over Monday from Jay Leno, who will move to prime time in the fall.

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As host of NBC's most venerable entertainment series, O'Brien becomes a combination figurehead and mascot -- honorary captain of the Good Ship Peacock. It's a ship that happens to be, at the moment, a little leaky.

Folks at NBC are understandably nervous about the transition, with the possible exception of the 6-foot-3, red-haired star himself. It seems he can't wait to get underway.

"It's all about firing up this giant cruise ship that's never been fired up before," says Conan by phone from his new office on the Universal lot in Los Angeles -- picking up the nautical metaphor but applying it to "The Tonight Show," not the network. "I have a tendency in my career to jump into the deep end and see what happens."

"The Tonight Show" is arguably more important than ever -- not only because it brings in hundreds of millions in annual revenue, but also because it's the network standard-bearer, NBC-owned and -produced. Leno's ratings have been high, and Conan is considered riskier, his material and his sensibilities less mainstream. In addition to all that, ABC has been cranking out weekly press releases for months now with headlines like " 'Nightline' Beats 'Letterman' and 'Leno' " although only "Among Adults 25-54."

Conan knows there will be brickbats heaved his way. " 'The Tonight Show' is so much an American cultural institution," he says, "that I'm prepared for the fact that some people, just because I've been around for a long time and maybe it's generational, will accept us right away, but some people will think, 'This doesn't feel right with me.' Which is only natural; it won't feel right to everybody right away and how could it? Eleven-thirty at NBC has been dominant since the early 1950s, and such a touchstone.

"And it's such a personal thing: You're coming into people's homes and so, suddenly, you create a certain rhythm and feel. Johnny Carson did, and I'm sure it was difficult for Jay." And now "Jay's been there so long, and suddenly people tune in and this carrot-headed Bob's Big Boy is jumping around, and I wouldn't blame people for saying, 'This doesn't feel right to me' right away. My hope is that that period won't last too long."

The story of how O'Brien came to take over "Tonight" is well known and fraught with complication.

"The thing about this is," Conan recalls, "I feel like five years ago, when they called me and asked me 'Would you like to host "The Tonight Show" five years from now?' I said, 'Sure, that would be fine.' And Jay called me and congratulated me and talked about it in a very nice way on his show that night. So I always felt I was aboveboard about everything."

But then, as the date grew nearer, Leno began making noises, and jokes, about the weirdness of a network ousting someone who's No. 1 in his time period. NBC executives may have suffered traumatic deja vu back to 1991, when Leno vied noisily with David Letterman to succeed industry giant Carson, a struggle that became an embarrassing mess.

Leno got "The Tonight Show," and a bitter Letterman went to CBS and "The Late Show." Carson let it be known that he was on Letterman's side and even appeared, ghostlike, on Letterman's show.

Just when it looked as though a blood bath like the Incredible Imbroglio of 1991 might take place, NBC revealed a jaw-dropping resolution: It announced that as of next season, Leno would not be leaving the network after all, and would not be starting a new late-night show on any other network. Instead, he would helm a new comedy-variety show built for him and airing at 10 each weeknight. Conan presents himself as greatly relieved: "The good thing for me is that that was amicably resolved." (Conan will be a guest on Leno's final "Tonight Show" tomorrow.)


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