Way back in early 2010, the hot topic in Hollywood was NBC’s bungling of its late-night talk shows. Jay Leno had been vilified for first moving to the 10pm slot with his execrable The Jay Leno Show, a ratings disaster that pulled viewers away from local news and the new, Conan O’Brien-hosted Tonight Show. Then Leno snatched back the 11:30pm slot from O’Brien, who in turn refused an offer to move to 12:30am—and came out of the fiasco the bullied, ginger victim, with only a $45 million settlement to ease the pain.
But from O'Brien's martyrdom grew an army of fervent, online supporters—“Team Coco,” they called themselves—and a new home on basic cable. TBS was really excited to have him (they even gave him his own blimp!), and to prove how much he meant to them, gave him the pimp spot of 11pm. That required moving the show currently in that timeslot—George Lopez Tonight—to midnight, which at the time struck me as being not entirely unlike what Leno had done to Conan. But public sympathy was working so much in O’Brien’s favor that Lopez’s show—which wasn’t breaking new ground but was still a solid, little late show that catered to minorities in ways that no other late show had done since the glory days of Arsenio Hall—would just have to suck it up. At the time, Lopez was publicly magnanimous about the arrangement.
That was a year ago. Both hosts' ratings were healthy at the start, but Conan began to erode viewers steadily, and Lopez Tonight, now extremely dependent on Conan as a lead-in (in much the way The Tonight Show was dependent onThe Jay Leno Show), saw its ratings plummet a dire 40 percent. In a recent appearance on Late Show with David Letterman, he admitted that he didn’t like the midnight slot. The writing was on the wall...or rather, in an impersonal statement announcing the cancellation of Lopez Tonight, released by TBS today. In an accolade attributed only to a “network spokesperson,” TBS named called “an immensely talented comedian and entertainer,” and said the network has “valued its partnership with George.” It’s as middle-finger as a cancellation gets.
And what’s next? There are reports that O’Brien will produce a follow-up show, in the way Letterman produced The Late Late Show (the Tom Snyder version and the two Craigs—Kilborn and now Ferguson). But the bigger issue, I think, is O’Brien’s viability as a late-night innovator. Before Conan, his Tonight Show always felt off to me—not because it was too young or edgy for the slot, but because it felt a little dated, actually. It was stuck in a specific time and place: the ‘90s, to be precise, in his tiny, Late Night studio at Rockefeller Center. As much as I never saw it coming, O'Brien was beaten at his own game by a talk show upstart who few thought could handle the gig. That's right: Jimmy Fallon, whose mastery of social media, sublime house band The Roots, and goofy, can-do spirit has all but reinvigorated the genre. For me, it’s The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, then Fallon if I’m still up. Sorry, Coco. The field’s just too crowded with great stuff.