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Leno Faces Weird Showdown with O’Brien

It's odd, and probably wrong, to call this the end of the Jay Leno era.

For one thing, Leno, ever the affable company man, seems too bland, too vanilla to sit atop something so grand as an era, even if he's been at the helm of "The Tonight Show" the past 17 years.

For another, while Leno's last show as host was Friday night, he's coming back this fall as the host of a presumably similar show that will air every weeknight in prime time, plopping him squarely in the how-can-we-miss-him-if-he-won't-go-away category.

But facts are facts. Conan O'Brien, who takes over "The Tonight Show" on June 1, will be only the fifth host in the show's history. And 17 years is a long time, so it's the end of something.

And the beginning of something, as well. But what? Questions abound, and have, literally for years. NBC announced this succession in ... 2004. Much has changed in that time, in particular NBC's prime-time fortunes, which have spiraled downward. You can bet that if its 9 p.m. shows were pulling in viewers like they once did, we wouldn't be getting five nights of Jay a week this fall.

Full disclosure: I'm a David Letterman man, and always have been. While Leno has been a steady steward of "The Tonight Show" brand, Letterman is one of a handful of people in television who can truly be called a genius. His early, absurdist take on the late-night talk show was revolutionary, and O'Brien's style clearly owes much more to Letterman than Leno (as does ABC's Jimmy Kimmel's).

Will it play as well on "The Tonight Show" as it did on "Late Night?" One hopes, and has reason to - the people who came of age watching Letterman deconstruct the form are now older and, presumably, eager to get to bed earlier (believe me, it happens). O'Brien's less-traditional style won't scare them off at the earlier hour as some have suggested; they're at home with it.

But it will be different. On the late-night front, it's not as seismic a shift as NBC picking Leno over Letterman for "The Tonight Show" gig, in part because we've had so much time to grow used to the idea of this change. It is, however, a shift in comic sensibilities.

In reality, it's Leno's new show that will take some getting used to. A talk show in prime time? It's either a concession by a struggling network that it can't come up with enough original programming to fill its allotted three hours of prime time per night, a last-gasp effort to hold on to the popular Leno or, most likely, a combination of both. Whatever the case, none of the options is ideal.

But Leno's show - it'll be called that, "The Jay Leno Show" - will cost less to produce than a drama, which is the traditional programming of choice at 10 p.m., and it presumably won't require the hefty ratings an expensive show would be expected to command at that hour to stay on the air.

That takes some of the pressure off Leno (though he will be expected to deliver a relatively sizable audience to the NBC affiliates' late news broadcasts; a good lead-in is crucial to their ratings). But does it add more pressure on Conan? For five years he's been the heir apparent of "The Tonight Show." Now the gig is within his grasp, and people are talking more about the Leno experiment, for lack of a better term, than about his ascension to the throne.

Neither NBC nor Leno has said much about what his show will be. We can assume that with so many hours of programming, he'll have guests, which sets up an intriguing booking battle. If Mel Gibson decides to make a visit to a show after a few years in the figurative wilderness, O'Brien's no longer just competing with other networks for him. He's competing with Leno.

And if you're Gibson, presuming you want the biggest audience possible - the mind reels - the lure of the earlier show is great. It's called "prime" time for a reason.

That's what makes Leno's "Tonight Show" exit and O'Brien's entrance soon after so weird, so intriguing and, thanks to the personalities involved, so fitting. In other words, stay tuned.

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