Every high school in America has its cool kids, the smart, snarky ones who sit in the prow of culture, and its dorks, the plodding if amiable ones who sit in the middle of the boat and try not to make waves. One needs to be reminded of this in assessing what was really at stake in the headline-making Leno-O'Brien war that ended Thursday with an agreement to pay $45 million to O'Brien and his staff.
Celebrities and critics are still taking sides -- the younger, hipper ones decrying how shabbily NBC had treated poor Conan; the older, statelier ones backing Leno -- giving us a clear demonstration of just how much this was a function not so much of money or ratings but of demographics. O'Brien and Leno stood across a cultural and generational divide: young vs. old, cool vs. uncool.
The origins of this battle actually go back to 2004 when NBC decided to boot Leno to the curb five years down the road and replace him with Conan O'Brien, 13 years Leno's junior, after Leno had been helming "The Tonight Show" for 17 years. Aside from Leno, no one seemed particularly startled by this succession, though it turned television logic on its head. Leno was drawing huge ratings, regularly beating the pants off of his CBS competition, David Letterman. By the time he left, he was attracting 5 million viewers a night, and "The Tonight Show" was one of NBC's most profitable franchises. And though Leno's ratings, like all ratings on broadcast television, had declined in his last year, he was still unassailable.
Which was precisely what NBC had expected when Leno took over "The Tonight Show" in 1992 after being tapped over Letterman. Everyone agreed then that Letterman was edgier than Leno, more iconoclastic, and, to a lot of people, funnier. Letterman wore the self-deprecating dork's mantle, but it was a ruse. He was the cool, droll kid who had reinvented late-night television, and NBC decided he might not be the best fit for the square "Tonight Show," where middle-American Johnny Carson had held forth for 30 years.
As it turned out, NBC was right. Leno had been an edgy -- and very funny -- comedian once, but he had gradually drifted to the center where the larger audience was. If that meant blunting his comedy, Leno was willing. By the time he took over "Tonight," Leno's basic commodity was not his humor, which had become toothless, but his likability. He was your grandmother's comedian -- the comedian of the Silent Majority.
Meanwhile, Conan O'Brien was handed Letterman's vacated spot after Leno. O'Brien had never been before the camera. He was a writer. But he was a great idea for a late-night show host: Harvard-educated, then trained at the writers' tables on "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons." It didn't get any cooler than that. Even if he was as jittery as a nervous Chihuahua and milked his handful of jokes for everything they were worth by shameless mugging, he was young and different -- a hipster.
More important, he was the beneficiary of a sea change in television. Over the 16 years from O'Brien's first appearance on late night to his taking over "The Tonight Show," Leno didn't change his nice guy persona and O'Brien didn't get any more comfortable on stage. They remained pretty much the same. It was the culture that changed around them. And that's where demographics came in.
Few people alive today remember that television was once measured, reasonably, by how many people actually watched a particular program. You either had the most viewers or you didn't, and advertisers paid accordingly. The problem with this system was that year in and year out, actually 20 out of 21 years from 1955 through 1976, CBS got the highest ratings. ABC and NBC couldn't make a dent. So ABC, typically mired in third place, devised another strategy. It got the brilliant idea of finding a slice of the audience in which it could compete with CBS -- never mind that the choice was arbitrary. That's how ratings suddenly got divided into demographic segments -- which was like a football team saying that while it lost the game, it outscored its opponent in the third quarter and that ought to count for something. ABC boasted that it got younger viewers than CBS.