So it looks like there’ll be dueling press releases throughout the summer in the Conan O’Brien versus David Letterman battle for late-night supremacy. There’s good and bad news for CBS and NBC. It’s clear right now that Dave’s Late Show is topping Conan’s Tonight Show in audience size.

This is the first time Dave has done this to The Tonight Show over a full week of original broadcasts since 2005, and that has to worry NBC Universal Jeff Zucker, whose decision it was to rotate out Leno and rotate in Conan. Especially since these are probably the last weeks that late-night addicts are sampling O’Brien before settling into a viewing routine.

It’s the nightmare scenario for GE/NBC Universal that everyone but boss Jeff Zucker thought would happen: The network’s cash cow, The Tonight Show, once safely No. 1 in the ratings with Jay Leno as host, now can only hope to seesaw in the ratings against Letterman’s Late Show. And it’s all Zucker’s fault.

You’d think that NBC would be in a flop-sweat over O’Brien’s ratings slide during his first and second weeks as host of The Tonight Show. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. By now, most network suits would be spending every minute of every hour of every day brainstorming about how to make the show more popular. But this is NBC, where, when the going gets rough, the executives go golfing. That’s right, Conan’s longtime executive producer Jeff Ross got his money’s worth out of his spankin’ new membership at Riviera Country Club, even after Conan’s ratings began to fall.

On the other hand, Conan is delivering better demographics — about 11 years younger in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49 age category. But CBS noted that Dave was beginning to “narrow the gap”— as Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson was over Jimmy Fallon, who’s also winning those coveted demos. Of course, this is important info, more so than the number of households watching. Then again, that’s NBC’s mantra: We don’t need eyeballs as long as we have key demos. Actually, both count.

Nevertheless, Conan has blown his big first few days’ lead. But that’s not stopping NBC from gushing. Conan is now garnering the smallest audience for The Tonight Show ever — well, at least since the advent of Nielsen people meters for the show in 1987. Sure, the NBC Universal chairman can run to The New York Times boasting about Conan’s “win” in late-night because he has a younger audience. But that doesn’t make it so. Which is why Craig Ferguson, who works for Letterman’s Worldwide Pants, which owns both of CBS’ late-night shows, took the piss out of an NBC press release yesterday that declared Conan the “King of Late Night TV” by claiming the title for himself: “I put out a press release saying I was the new King Of Late Night. What constitutes royalty in late-night television? Saying you are!”

But Madison Avenue knows full well that if they want younger audiences with fewer eyeballs, they can buy ads on cable, which is a hell of a lot cheaper than prime time. There’s more bad news: The advertising trade press has reported that ad buyers are balking at paying prime-time prices for late-night ratings this fall, when Jay Leno starts his show. Sure, Zucker and his minions keep repeating the mantra that it doesn’t matter if Leno’s new show gets whipped by scripted dramas because “we’re managing for margins, not ratings.” Translation: Programming Leno will be cheaper to produce than programming Southland. That argument isn’t cutting it with Madison Avenue.

So what is Ben Silverman’s supposedly “creative” solution to appease advertisers who don’t want to pay prime-time rates for late-night ratings? He recently told Ad Age, “the network would consider offering the opportunity to have Mr. Leno do live commercials, which he suggested would potentially be worth a price increase.”

Uh, did anyone at NBC even bother to tell Leno he may become a 10 p.m. pitchman in September? A throwback holding up cans of Campbell’s Chunky Soup and bags of Purina Dog Chow while telling viewers how much he likes the products? How humiliating for Jay. He should have taken ABC up on that offer to compete with both Dave and Conan.

One thing is certain: Gone is Conan’s all-too-brief honeymoon with the press and viewers. Not even NBCU’s PR War Room set up by Zucker will be able to spin this disaster. (He recently switched lieutenants, bringing in his trusted NBC News flack Allison Gollust to manhandle pesky reporters like me.) In the old days of network TV, a top executive who made such horrendous mistakes as Zucker would not even wait to be fired: He’d have the class to offer his immediate resignation. But nothing seems to shame Jeff. Though many have tried.

Just this past weekend, Marc Cherry reminded a producers’ conference that, after his Desperate Housewives became a huge hit for ABC, then-NBCU chairman Bob Wright asked him who at NBC had passed on the show. Karey Burke, then NBC’s EVP of prime-time series development, loved it and gave it to Jeff Zucker, who passed. “The heat went onto Karey, who was soon looking for a new job,” Cherry said. And Zucker? That December, he was promoted. And promoted again in 2004. And again in 2005. And promoted again in 2007 to his present job.

So which is worse? Network execs too scared to change a successful formula? Or network execs too willing to turn everything on its head? It’s clear that Conan’s version of The Tonight Show is just more of the same old, same old. And that’s how O’Brien’s longtime exec producer Jeff Ross and boss Jeff Zucker want it. But while they were golfing together this weekend in a foursome at Riviera Country Club, they both worried about how to prevent Leno from cannibalizing Conan this fall. And my info is that it’s already getting ugly.

Leno’s show premieres September 14. NBC doesn’t want Conan “freaking out” as he’s establishing himself. And the bosses know that booking wars on the same network is a recipe for disaster. So NBC executives have barraged Jay with edicts including the network’s recommendations on which longtime staffers to keep or let go. The network also has demanded that Leno back off booking A-list celebrities because it would encroach on O’Brien’s turf.

These bosses are putting Leno under pressure to think outside the box and help come up with a format significantly different from the one he’s slavishly followed for 17 years. But no one should rely on Jay for that. The last time he had an original idea, it was 1992 and it involved making his manager Helen Kushnick also The Tonight Show’s executive producer. And we all know how disastrously that turned out.

Most people wrongly attribute the start of Leno’s late-night ratings wins to 1995 when he asked Hugh Grant, fresh from his arrest for getting a blowjob from a prostitute, “What the hell were you thinking?” But actually, in late 1993, Don Ohlmeyer was brought in to lead NBC’s troops to ratings victory. The first thing Ohlmeyer did was to retool Jay’s The Tonight Show by providing a new set, more remote segments, different camera angles, and the artificial excitement of a comedy club in which people in those first rows pretend to mob Jay. After a seesaw battle with Letterman, Leno became No. 1 in late night.

Problem is, there are no leaders anymore atop NBC. Just pretenders to the throne.


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >