What do you watch at 11:30? Are you even up? The Daily Show is over, but there's still Steven Colbert. Or are you sucked away from basic cable to join one of the Established Hosts on those antiquated broadcast networks? And if you are, which one? The answer to that question probably depends on how old you are.
Last week's Saturday Night Live included this imaginary Larry King Show, mocking, as both hosts have, the ham-handed dismissal of the younger Conan to honor expensive contract obligations made to the older Leno. For many of us, this is simple: Jay Leno is old and grouchy (well not as old as I am but still...) and O'Brien younger, more creative and definitely holder of the "younger, cooler, hipper" mandate. (Yes I know there's David Letterman (and George Lopez) but for now let's think about NBC.)
Younger viewers have been up late watching Conan for years - after many of the rest of us had gone to bed - and they know and like his ironic, goofy, smart persona. The Harvard-educated O'Brien, (who wrote for the university's humor magazine, the Harvard Lampoon,) and served as a long-time writer for Saturday Night live and later for The Simpson's, is a perfect 21st Century personality.
Leno, on the other hand, is a real 20th Century man. He came up through comedy clubs and Tonight Show appearances and is a car collector and motorcycle freak. His humor is less subtle and, somehow, although less arch than Conan it's also less friendly. Mostly though, it's old-school. In my view, it's for the dwindling older audience and not for the emerging majority of TV viewers (and of Americans) born well after we Boomers had finished college.
It's funny, but as much as I loathe the idea of age discrimination, I also see this decision as a symptom of a generational division visible in the women's movement, in life on the Web and in the politics that brought out so many younger voters for Barack Obama and then betrayed them with posturing and partisanship.
I first thought about all this when I saw an interview with the gifted and admired Dick Ebersol, long an icon of sports coverage who has led NBC Sports for many years and presided over several Olympics seasons on the air. In the Huffington Post, he called Conan's Tonight show a "spectacular failure." In his long career, in addition to sports, Ebersol was an executive in charge of the TODAY SHOW (full disclosure, I worked for him - and happily) and of Saturday Night Live so he's no slouch. But it seems that seven months, preceded by a failing Leno show with ratings so bad the affiliates, bleeding audience for the local news that followed Leno, demanded a change, was hardly the best audience-builder for Conan, whose show followed that news. More than all of that though, Ebersol is far from the days when he had his finger on the pulse of the emerging audience, the Gen Xers and Millennials and those younger than they are. They want something different, something cooler, something more like -- Conan.
I've written about, and been on panels about, the generational divide. The economic crisis has only exacerbated it as young people consider the disappearing Social Security benefits and their own futures in a world where job security and benefits is hazy history. They're mad at the Boomers, blame us for more than we're responsible for and often have no idea what we really accomplished in the 60's and 70's -- for the better. Events like this one, however superficial and entertainment-based, are just another example of the disregard in which they are too often held. NBC will pay for that -- in the PR game it already has (did you see the Golden Globes?) and, I fear, in a larger sense, so will the rest of us "older" Americans. We should be listening to them about more than product preferences and if we don't, we'll be sorry.