Shales on TV Live: Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien Conflict

Tom Shales
Washington Post TV columnist
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, Jan. 12, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

Today: A look at the Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien conflict at NBC.

Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.


NBC at Night: Why don't they just call the whole 2.5-hour mess "Tonight! America After Dark" (remember that?) and just rotate the segments among all the hosts.

Tom Shales: Good Day - we seem to have a hot topic - those darn late-night shows again. Here's a practical suggestion -- bring back "America After Dark." How about bringing back "Broadway Open House," with Jerry Lester and Dagmar (this week's million-dollar memory question). Anyway there seem to be lots of opinions regarding NBC's latest big fat mess... so ... this is your friend The Situation saying Situation Hopeless - but let's give it a whirl anyway........


Eastchester, N.Y.: Why doesn't Leno, whom I like, act like a man, admit defeat and decamp to FOX at 11? Beat NBC's brains out, rather than sliming on Conan.

Tom Shales: I agree. I think Leno is starting to come off like a bully. Here is a theory: He did a lousy show at 10 o'clock ON PURPOSE, knowing that eventually NBC would want to un-do the deal and put him back at 11:30 (okay, 11:35). So the whole thing was a nasty calculated Machiavellian scheme, with Conan the hapless victim. Leno may find that when he returns to 11:30, the public has a radically altered image of him..........


Reston, Va.: Hi Tom: I know you're probably going to be totally focused on the Jay/Conan/Jimmy debacle, but on a slight tangent, I just wanted to say that I'm psyched that Southland returns tonight on TNT! I'm guessing that NBC is regretting that decision as well.

Tom Shales: Yes, dumb old NBC -- if they had held on to SOUTHLAND, they'd at least have one hour of the five soon-to-be-empty prime-time hours filled -- even though some executive said he didn't like the show. Here's another theory being floated: Biggest Loser Jeff Zucker, NBCUniversal chairman, hires only executives who are dumber than him so he doesnt look too bad -- Unfortunately, dumber than him means they're dumber than ANYTHING.......


Woodbridge, Va.: I disagree with your criticism of Leno. He had the #1 late night show for over a decade and was still beating Letterman easily in 2009. Why should he be forced to give up the Tonight Show because of a bonehead promise Jeff Zucker made five years ago. 2009 seemed so far away back in 2004 when Conan was threatening to leave NBC, so it must have seemed like a consequence free promise. I guess Zucker assumed Leno or Conan would leave NBC for other reasons before 2009 came around so he would never have to go through with his promise.

Tom Shales: Yes, good point(s) but a promise IS a promise, and should be even in the sleazy world of network television (it wasn't always THIS sleazy, by the way, but desperation breeds bad behavior) ... Did you notice that though Conan's ratings were low, he managed to lower the median age of the Tonight Show viewer by TEN years (down to 45)? I don't endorse the idea of writing off all viewers over 34 or 49, but Conan did accomplish something that could be important to the future of the Tonight Show. Jay Leno is very old-hat and corny. I think Johnny Carson was hipper by far. Leno is a step back toward the Neanderthal Age of Comedy..... or of the world....


Leno at 10: Do you think people disliking Leno's whining and kicking and screaming to get the 10 p.m. slot (after he said five years ago he was retiring) played a role in his poor ratings at that hour? Or was it all simply a matter of people not wanting a "variety" show in that timeslot?

Tom Shales: I think it was partly a matter of people not wanting a BAD variety show. There was very little prime-timey about the Leno show. It was like they were saving money on the budget and socking away the excess in an employee welfare fund. I couldn't get over the idea of putting some lame unknown comic on about 10 minutes into the hour, a sure fire way to chase viewers away. Leno is not much of an entertainer, he is only a comic. And a comic who doesn't seem to grow or change with the times - except of course that he's much dirtier than he was as a stand-up. A lame idea of progress.


Mesa, Ariz.: Is "The Unit" being canceled? That would be a shame, I think it is a terrific series.

Tom Shales: I think they canceled UNIT some time ago tho may have been burning off unseen episodes ... It was a terrific show but it was one of those series that seemed like it would have maybe been better as a movie - or a limited-length series, like "Band of Brothers" was on HBO -- a specified number of weeks, more like a miniseries. These are just hunches, of course, and maybe not particularly good ones......


Tip on great unappreciated TV: "Demons" on BBC: the kid finds out he's descended from the Van Helsing and is called to fight demons every episode. Very good story-telling and great characters.

Tom Shales: Yes - why not tune in the BBC America channel NOW and see the original British shows before American producers buy them and "adapt" them for the U.s. Market? Altho something like American Idol really has to be re-tailored to fit the country in which the competition is being held. ONE BIG PROBLEM with BBC America channel: it features the same horrible, grating, overlong commercials that flood all the other cable channels and keep cable looking crummy.....


Arlington Gay: Tom, your colleague Lisa de Moraes often writes of how networks send TV shows to Friday nights to die. So, I've already been saying goodbye to "Ugly Betty." Then, out of nowhere the show isn't on Fridays anymore. Is there hope?

Tom Shales: I wish I knew -- wish I had some sort of inside information on this one. My impression is there is almost NO hope for Ugly Betty returning in the fall. Or ever after. But I do think the show has created a star or two, if that's any conolation. ABC may plug the remaining episodes into random holes in the schedule between now and May......


Vienna, Va.: Tom, if you've read Bill Carter's "The Late Shift" you have to believe that Leno has been scheming to work his way back to 11:35 for a while now. Conan is the one who should leave. His public image is actually on the rebound, in my opinion, he's coming off as sharp and funny with a nice twist of acid in his monologues about this and he should take his shot with Fox.

BTW, speaking of books about TV, is there any book better on the history of the medium than "The Box" by Jeff Kisseloff? I know you've mentioned it in the past but that's a classic.

Tom Shales: If by "any book on the history of the medium" you are eliminating "Live from New York," the fascinating story of Saturday Night Live (by yours truly and James A. Miller - or you've heard of it?!???!) then yes yes yes, The Box is a great book, one you can pick up and open to any page and just plunge in - and be fascinated, providing you have enough interest in American cultural history. As for "The Late Shift," I thought the HBO movie was better than the drably-written book - plus Bill Carter wanted to give the impression that nobody had ever reported anything on the Late Night Wars besides him and the New York Times. I found that nauseating - but I am admittedly prejudiced.


Dexter: The cable blood-n-guts version of Dexter is too much for me but I was big fan on the cleaned up version which aired on CBS during the strike. Why don't broadcast channels do more of that?

Tom Shales: I am afraid there is a demonstrated market for "unrated" versions of R and PG-rated movies but no demonstrated market for cleaned-up R and NC-17 rated movies (or adult-rated TV shows). Here's a quick story: I hadn't seen Mrs Doubtfire until it aired on Fox broadcast TV. A friend watched it too. I asked if it was suitable for my godchildren. He said oh yes, very little bad language etc. So I bought them the DVD. Bad move - the censored version was MUCH BETTER for kids, I thought - the R-rated language was entirely unnecessary, especially on a movie that had so much kid-appeal. Now I have forgotten the question -- it happens at least once a week!


Will Idol continue without Simon?: Snark is not a rare commodity.

Tom Shales: It really shouldnt be that hard to find someone who can toss off a snotty sarcastic line every now and then -- I liked Simon Cowell on the show but I don't see why it has to just wither and die without him. His "talent" can't be THAT unique. And the new guy does NOT have to be British, either, tho American viewers seem to prefer, as you say, snarky Brits to snarky Americans. By the way, I am at this moment missing COVER GIRL on TCM. I only mention it 'cause it's my favorite '40s musical and Rita Hayworths best picture.


speaking of BBC America: Seems Jonathan Ross, apparently a national treasure across the pond, is quitting the BBC. He had an extremely lame Friday night show which was rebroadcast on BBC America. Made Leno look hip and with-it. (He was also involved in a very British scandal with unfunny comic Russell Brand over them insulting Andrew Sachs, the actor who played Manuel on Fawlty Towers.)

Word is he's being replaced by Graham Norton, who already has a show (also on BBC America) and actually IS hip and with-it...and very funny.

Tom Shales: You don't find Graham Norton to be one of those "a little goes a long way" types? Maybe not. His show is pretty old-fashioned in some ways too -- the way they involve the audience in childish stunts brings back memories of '50s embarrassment game-shows like "Truth or Consequences" or "People are Funny." But my little bit of exposure to Ross suggests to me that you have hit the nail on the button, or whatever.......


Washington, D.C.: Sigh... last week I asked you to reassure me that Comcast would give Conan that chance to grow and develop his show at "Tonight." Now I know why you dodged my question that day!! ...and just when I was FINALLY getting Andy on the couch too! ARRGGHH! In any event, can you give me insider odds as to whether Conan stays with "Tonight" or moves over to FOX? Much as I hate to make this admission, I'd STILL rather he stays at the Peacock and host "Tonight." "Tonight" is something to curl up around at the end of a long, hard day. Always has been. FOX? Not so much... Either way, I hope Andy comes along for the ride!!

Tom Shales: My apologies, first of all. I don't know if Conan gets yet more money from NBC if they back out of his current deal. Someone wrote today that NBC agreed to pay Conan $45 mill if he wasnt given the Tonight Show -- but that the clause didn't say how LONG he had to have the Tonight Show & that NBC may try to wriggle out on a technicality. But then that would be very bad P.R. for a network that already looks like a conspiracy of dunces. Dontcha think it would be too humiliating for Conan to have to go back to following Leno AGAIN??? Maybe Conan could help Fox change its image a bit.


Speaking of BBC: Why not give Leno a weekly show like BBC's Graham Norton or Jonathan Ross? Make the prime- time chat show more of a weekly "event" with big guests people would want to tune in to see.

Tom Shales: Wouldnt work. Seems like the genre we are talking about is by definition nightly. People tune in for the nightly adventures of so-and-so. Jack Paar of course had a very fine weekly program after he stepped down from the Tonight Show, but he lost interest in it and quit after 3 years....


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Tom. Do you have a professional "guess" as to how this latest chapter in "The Late Night Wars" will play out?

Tom Shales: No I have an amateur gas. Guess. Ha ha ha. Let me see -- I think this has already been said -- Leno will go back to where he insists he belongs but not for half an hour, that's stupid - for an hour just like before - with Conan going to Fox or FX or Comedy Central, wherever a nightly talk show can be accomodated -- then again, on cable he could not have the budget he is used to -- and then yet again, who needs a big huge elephant of a set like the one NBC built for him at Universal? The set may have been part of the problem - Conan rattled around in it like a beebee in a wheelbarrow. huh??


Richmond, Va.: Why was Charles Barkley hosting SNL? What did he do since putting on all that weight to earn that plush hosting job?

Tom Shales: It was a BAD choice, and I think the SNL gang would agree. Maybe they like to have a certain number of sports figures each year - but Barkley isnt really a sports figure any more - and his figure leaves a lot to be desired. If I want to see a guy who looks like me, I'll look at me.


Whither Jimmy Fallon?: Have always liked the little nipper, and wonder what will happen to him when the dust clears from the Clash of the Titans in the (early segment) of Late Night? And I didn't watch Leno at 10:30 p.m., didn't watch him at 9:00 P.M., and won't watch him no matter what time slot they give him in the Midwest. So there!

Tom Shales: Good for you, stand up for your beliefs. I am not making fun, I think Fallon has a lot of potential. In the first weeks of his show, though, he has come off too often like a star-struck stagedoor Jimmy - you know, all ga-ga goo-goo about being around "stars" when he's now a star himself. Hey kid, snap out of it! He laughs so much when a great comic like Robin Williams comes on, it's kind of embarrassing. But he's got lots of spirit ... and talent. I wish he'd have Will Ferrell on and a couple of the women from SNL and do one of those hilarious hot-tub sketches; I doubled-over laughing at those......


My apologies, re: TV history books: I didn't mean to slight "Live from New York" which I did read and enjoyed immensely. Your second finest hour, behind only the traditional slaying of the Kathie Lee Gifford Christmas specials, which you will never top, although do try anyway.

Tom Shales: Oh gosh now I feel silly. So what else is new? Live from New York is of course the history of only one show -- not a history of the medium. THE BOX is an oral history, like the SNL book, and there is something amusing or alarming on every page.


Clifton, Va.: Interesting that Letterman and Leno hate each other when they are both two of the biggest car guys in the industry.

Bring back Arsenio! He was better than all of them!

Tom Shales: I don't think Letterman really "collects" old cars so much as he likes to drive fast. He told me once about going 140 on the Autobahn and being PASSED by a Mercedes-Benz. Well we aren't allowed that kind of fun in the U.S.A. I can't say I share your adulation of Arsenio but he certainly does. He sent me an angry letter once declaring that he was on a "non-stop one-way ride to the top" or something like that. But he appears to have stopped.


Won't leave Dave: Let NBC crash and burn, I won't leave Letterman, but I certainly have liked O'Brien over the years and sometimes watch him when Dave is a rerun so I feel sorry for him. He deserves better from NBC.

Tom Shales: Frankly it might work out so that a viewer who likes Letterman AND O'Brien will be able to watch both again without resorting to any gadgetry a la TiVO or On Demand.


Not on subject, but...: Why don't they put the night shows back to 11:30 instead of 11:35. They did it way back when to give the local news broadcasts five more minutes, but it is just 5 more minutes of commercials, we don't get any more news.

Tom Shales: YOU ARE SO RIGHT. It is one of the great scams of television. I have timed those five minutes extra from 11:30 to 11:35 --not a lot of news in there -- unless you consider it hot stuff that Geico could allegedly save you money on car insurance or that some outfit will give you three rooms of carpeting for the price of a dishrag or a snood.


The Ghost of Jack Paar: How can Leno do thirty minutes? Eliminate guests! 12-minute monologue, 12 minutes of Headlines and Jaywalking, 6 minutes of commercials.

Tom Shales: It just sounds stupid, no offense. Leno would like the part about eliminating guests though. So would Conan, who interrupts guests TOO FREQUENTLY with what he thinks and hopes are hilarious wisecracks......


Fairfax, Va.: Is the NBC late night debacle equal to when Coke changed the formula? I think so. NBC is acting like a start-up network. To think of its storied past and to watch it crumble down now in amateurism. It's pathetic.

Tom Shales: we had a glitch. i may be answering this for a second time. not really an answer though - just a "right on"


Washington, D.C.: Ugly Betty is now on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. And Demons on BBC America is dreadful.

Tom Shales: Thank you on behalf of U.B. fans.


What will be on at 10: NBC, I guess, will be scrambling to try to come up with low- budget scripted dramas for the 10 p.m. slot now. Oh, I can hardly wait for these great shows.

Tom Shales: Well remember there are still versions of Law And Order that have not been done. "Law & Order: Airport Security Dopes" for one. Oh sorry, I should not insult those hard-working, put-upon folks. How about "Law & Order: Convenience Store Stick-Ups" ?


Jack Paar of course had a very fine weekly program after he stepped down from the Tonight Show, but he lost interest in it and quit after 3 years: Actually, NBC suspended Jack Paar for a while after his (now-inocuous-sounding) "WC" joke. When Paar finally returned, he famously opened with something like, "As I was saying..." but the show was never the same after NBC neutered him.

Tom Shales: No no, sorry but this is one thing I am an expert on, as I loved Jack as a star and as a friend in the last years of his life ... the joke was censored while Paar hosted THE TONIGHT SHOW. He didn't have any big fights with the network, I don't think, during the run of his once-a-week prime-time show which aired Friday nights. Paar gave early exposure to Bill Cosby on that show, by the way. Among many other stars-to-be. Paar was incomparable - Conan and Letterman both worship the memory. Dave even got to know Paar when Dave was still at NBC - but he didn't like going to a party at Jack's house and then being thrown out when Jack got sleepy and decided to go to bed. He'd go so far as to put on his pajamas while guests were still milling around. Sorry, these are random ramblings......


Silver Spring, Md.: What's your opinion of "Men of a Certain Age?" (TNT). My wife and I like it. To us, it's not formulaic, has interesting plot lines and good dialogue.

Tom Shales: I love it; I think it's one of the best original series ever to appear on a basic cable network. I hope it mops up at the Golden Globes Sunday night, even though those "awards" from the "Hollywood foreign press" are pretty much a FARCE.....


Union Station, Washington, D.C.: Let's assume Leno gets "The Tonight Show" back for a full hour. Do you REMEMBER his sendoff? How we all had to watch as he marched out every child that had been born over the course of his 17-year tenure like some sort of bizzaro messiah? It was all meant to seem SO final and concluded. How can we possibly miss him if he won't go away? What on EARTH is he going to say on his first night back out there? "Well, I took a baseball bat to Conan's head... and I'm bbbaaaaaaaaaack!" Who in the world would still watch? He already left! Won't he look like a fool to even those who LIKE him? Worse yet, don't the bigwigs at NBC understand that??

Tom Shales: I guess JAy is insatiable and that stuff you mentioned doesn't seem to matter to him....


Newark, Del.: I'm in that young demographic (18-25 or whatever) and everyone, I mean, everyone I know thinks that Craig Ferguson is the funniest man on late night television.

I was disappointed he wasn't mentioned in your article yet you sang the praises of Jimmy Fallon which most people I know kinda think is a buffoon.

Tom Shales: Well now we HAVE mentioned him. I thought his appeal was mainly to older people. He would be thrilled to know that you and other people of your age like him. Seriously.


"Law and Order: Airport Security Dopes": LOL! How 'bout "Law and Order: Mall Cops."

Tom Shales: Yes! It's sorta been done though.... I'm thinking more along the lines of "Law & Order: Prom Night Chaperones." No, sorry -- forget it.......


Ugly Betty is now on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. And Demons on BBC America is dreadful.: I wouln't expect "Demons" to appeal to an "Ugly Betty" fan. That's like comparing Anime to Hello Kitty. (meow!)

Tom Shales: this has come through a few times ... I am passing it along.... actually i think i already did ...


Hey now, Fairfax, Va.: Wishful thinking: This new late night war is the catalyst for a Larry Sanders reunion show. Larry, having been somewhat unhappily retired all these years, sees the public's renewed attention to late night shows as the opportunity to relaunch his. It's gold, Tom!

In all seriousness, what are the chances that Gary Shandling reunites the cast for a one-off reunion at some point? Larry is still my choice for best talk show host of all time...

Tom Shales: Wonderful idea. They'd better hurry; Rip Torn isn't exactly wet behind the ears (understand please, I hope he lives FOREVER -- and that I am around to write about it) ... I will try to get your message to the Larry Sanders (Garry Shandling) people......wherever they may be....


Montgomery County, Md.: Reading your column today leads me to believe you simply don't care for Leno for whatever reason, (denied front row tickets in the past?), but seem enamored with Conan, who I find, quite frankly, more than a little creepy, and I think a lot of folks share my opinion.

Jay Leno has always impressed me as a class act. So he beats up on the network in his monologue, that's nothing new, and hardly a reason to label him as a "whiner."

I, for one, would like a real explanation of your obvious animosity toward Leno.

Tom Shales: Oh you want "a real explanation." Why would it be anything other than what I have said in writing? Who has time to develop TWO schools of thought about anyone as boring as Jay Leno? Actually it's an old story; I wrote about him frequently when he was a young stand-up comic. So refreshing, so smart, so good at ad-libbing. Middle-age seems to have curdled his wares. Yes people share your opinion that Conan is creepy, and people share my opinion that the Three Stooges were geniuses, so what? Nobody's right or wrong - but I think the evidence supporting Conan as bright and original is a lot stronger than any allegation about Leno being funny after all these years....


BBC and commercials: Tom, You hit it right on the head. BBC is almost unwatchable because of the constant barrage of commercials. They rendered "Pycho" unwatchable the other night by their abusive commercials that were cut away to just as the scene got good. Do you think those Brits are toying with us or does it take a lot more money to bring their shows across the pond ?

Tom Shales: Yes and what the heck were they doing with PSYCHO anyway? Alfred Hitchcock was born in England but otherwise this was hardly Best-of-British programming. PSYCHO has been available on many other channels including both TCM and AMC ... Such a shame -- considering what the BBC channel COULD be.... Good night and drive safely and don't forget to be kind to a critic sometime before we meet again (OR WAIT TILL THEN IF YOU'D RATHER) Thank you very very much.


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