The lesson we learn from the Conan/Leno late night imbroglio might have more to do with the power of mainstreaming conflict than anything involving NBC, late night television, or comedy.
It’s harder than ever to get people to care about entertainment institutions, and if the current late night late conflict has shown us anything, it’s that conflict sells. (Well, it’s also taught us that NBC seems to have standards for executive performance that would make them right at home on Wall Street, but that’s a story for a different day.)
One of the key moments in the ratings battle between the Conan’s nascent Tonight Show and David Letterman’s Late Show was Letterman’s involvement an extra-martial affair related extortion plot. With real life drama supplementing Stupid Pet Tricks, what active late night viewer wasn’t going to watch?
Naturally, since NBC’s stupid human trick put Conan on the spot, his ratings have been rising every night. Hell, the conflict even got me to watch Leno once. (On the wrong night, unfortunately, as I missed Jimmy Kimmel’s unreal appearance last night.)
So, while NBC’s brand is taking a hilarious beating, when it comes to the numbers that they really care about, ratings that will later be used to determine advertising rates, their ham-fisted handling of the Tonight Show has solved the very problem they were trying to address.
I’m wondering, why stop there? If real world conflict translates to advertising dollars, why shouldn’t a local newscaster, say, announce that they were going off their meds and didn’t know for sure what might happen? (Come to think of it, I just described Glenn Beck’s show…)
We’re living in a society that’s just about post-dignity and post-seriousness. Success, even in something as ultimately meaningless as television ratings, provides a patina of respect. It took American Idol, after its premiere, about two months to turn from a carnival sideshow exploiting damaged youth by exploiting their hopes for fame into a chronicle of the triumph of the human spirit. And Mr. Beck’s nuttiness has certainly worked out well for him.
So, I wonder if the lasting legacy of this very public conflict between millionaire comedians won’t be a sizable increase in the use of real world conflict to generate interest in cultural properties.