NBC is about to go through one of their rare transition of Tonight Show hosts. Because of the rarity, this is a story in and of itself. This transition has added intrigue, which seems to be the pattern with NBC and Jay Leno endeavors. There is much being written about Conan O'Brien taking over the Tonight Show with Jay Leno still, in effect, leading him in with a new show at 9 central. Can O'Brien book guests when his biggest competitor will be his pre-local news lead in? Will his style work with the Tonight Show?
I think the answer to both questions is yes. When it comes to booking guests, things will be difficult for O'Brien in the beginning, but that isn't anything he hasn't already dealt with in his career. Leno's prime time spot will be much more appealing to booking agents-at first. The problem Leno is going to face is that his show is going to be a radical change for prime time viewers. Currently, he is the host of a talk/comedy show that is nice to go to bed to. At his earlier position, he is going to be viewed as a variety show, and variety shows have a very poor record over the past 30 years. I expect that we'll see high initial ratings for Leno's new show that drop off very fast as the novelty wears off and viewers migrate to other channels.
I enjoy Leno's Tonight Show and I watch it over Letterman most nights. But Leno's Tonight Show isn't even a shadow of Carson's. While nobody will ever reach Carson levels with the Tonight Show again, O'Brien might actually have a shot of being mentioned in the same breath as Carson. If you ever watched Johnny's shows, you know that the skits and the spontaneity were huge components of Carson's command of the show. But in his later years, the skits became less frequent, less amusing, and the show less spontaneous. That was probably a component of Carson's aging and mellowing. Yet Leno has stripped all of that fun out of the Tonight Show. His skits generally aren't all that funny, and spontaneity is an infrequent component of his shows. He found a way to take back late night after the Hugh Grant affair, but his show is staid and somewhat boring.
O'Brien has not displayed as much spontaneity as Carson, but his shows have been decidedly less conservative than those of Leno's. While some components of that will be toned down, I expect O'Brien to bring some of the Carson fun back to the show. It will take some people a while to adjust, and his ratings will probably suffer in the first one to two years. But as some of that Carson fun comes back to the show, so will the ratings.