Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Rumble In The Media Jungle: Leno vs Conan 2/2/10

You know when something is really big news here when the essence of the story can be reduced to just four words.

One of the hottest topics of recent weeks has been “Rain in Los Angeles”, a headline of such cataclysmic proportions, it dominated not only local news bulletins, but every dining table conversation within a 50 mile radius.

You would think the city had never seen water, let alone seen it pour from the heavens.

People caught unawares emerged from restaurants, staring blankly into the street like assistants of Dr Who arriving at a designated departure point, only to find that the Tardis had already gone.

Coming from Cardiff, one of the wettest cities in the UK, I was invariably one of the only people on the street with an umbrella (habit - I never go without one, even in LA), as soaked pedestrians gazed on enviously.

Ha! I thought. They hadn’t read their Bibles; I was all too aware of the parable of the ten virgins, five of whom hadn’t taken enough oil for their lamps, while waiting the arrival of the bridegroom.

Some say the story is a warning to people to be prepared for the day of reckoning; to me, it means never, ever, go without an umbrella, bridegroom or no bridegroom, so there.

“Will Brangelina break up?”

That’s been another four-word obsession and a topic for which people have an almost pathological obsession in Hollywood.

The ongoing saga about the celebrity couple’s marriage, and whether Brad Pitt will leave current wife Angelina Jolie to return to first wife Jennifer Aniston, is one of the major soap operas of the day.

At Sunday’s Grammy Awards, E! (Entertainment) Channel reliably informed us from the red carpet that the previous night, the couple had been seen very much “into” each other. Purely on this evidence alone, said an interviewee, they were definitely not going to be breaking up.

I don’t care two figs one way or the other, but I do wonder how Angelina manages to sleep at night next to Brad’s weird new beard. Waking up next to that facial yeti must put more of a dent in her love than ever our Jen could manage to do. To be honest, the only way I can see Angelina could get “into” Brad at the moment would be if she were to employ a topiarist to pave the way.

Even bigger than the rain and Brangelina, however, has been the “Jay Leno versus Conan” story. This plot has rumbled on for weeks, both on and off screen, and the network NBC, on which both men have shows (at the moment), continues to be strangely fascinating.

In brief: Veteran Jay Leno was hosting the Tonight Show at 11.35pm, and, when he moved to primetime last year, failed to attract the same ratings. Now, in March, he’s getting his old show back, while his replacement, Conan O’Brien, who didn’t want to move to a later slot (and why should he, having landed the top prize – it’s humiliating), is leaving with £20 million.

To be honest, in the humiliation stakes, I’d strip naked and allow myself to be pelted with cow dung (thrown by Sarah Palin) for that sort of dosh, but I’m new to LA and doubtless I will learn.

Humiliation? Drive it over here in that fleet of Ferraris.

But I can’t help noticing that successful US male hosts are known only by their surnames (Leno, Letterman), and the females by their first (Oprah, Ellen, Chelsea). In this, Conan was doomed from the start. He will doubtless rue the day he was not Christened a boy named Sue.

The Leno/Conan story has become one of the major sources of material for comedians, coast to coast. David Letterman, who hosts his late-night TV show from New York, is enjoying it hugely, reportedly never having forgiven Leno for taking over the Tonight Show from Johnny Carson when he so wanted it for himself (I wanted it for Letterman, too, but if I’d known the queue of adoring women was as long as we now know it to have been, I might have hitched my flag to another, er, pole, as it were – but that’s another story).

Meanwhile, in LA, Conan puts on a brave face, trying to make light of what is clearly a very hurtful situation.

Leno continues to milk it, sparing viewers no details about the whole history of the story, right down to the nitty-gritty of NBC executives’ part in the drama, adding that he bears Conan no animosity. I’ll bet he doesn’t.

It is inconceivable that any British TV host, in the light of such a debacle, would ever spend 15 minutes of their show making jokes at the expense of the network on which they were appearing. The most Jonathan Ross, for example, has ever managed, has been a couple of light-hearted jokes about what he can or cannot say in the light of “Sachsgate”, the now infamous phone-call he and comedian Russell Brand made to the actor Andrew Sachs.

Yet Leno, telling viewers that they had a right to know what had really been going on behind the scenes, made fun of NBC executives in the most extraordinary manner – after he knew he was being handed back the best gig.

It made a very funny story and he told it well - bemused, baffled, and, let's not deny it, faintly smug. The fact that he was allowed to tell it at all was, in itself, hilarious.

Viewing figures are, of course, important to any network, but in the US they are everything, and late night TV has a kudos here that it has never managed to acquire in the UK.

Quite why this particular story should be deemed to be a ratings puller is anathema to us Brits, yet O’Brien’s ratings have increased dramatically as the story has unfolded.

The difference is, that in the UK, our TV scandals are played out in our newspapers, especially where licence-payers’ money is concerned.

Personally, I think it’s a shame.

Leno versus Conan is the new Rumble in the Jungle, and I, along with millions of others, just can’t get enough of it. Leno? Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee, is my guess.

But the real winner? Letterman.

At least it’s distracted viewers from simply wondering why he can’t keep his flies done up.

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