As we get down to the final minutes of this world class TV debacle, I think it's a good moment to reflect on this vital question: How great is the damage toJay Leno?
I played a little bit with this in today's paper, and effectively come down on the side of "not too great." We have a short attention span in popular culture, and sitting around for too long and pulling the threads apart on this topic will get old fast.
If Jay puts on the old "Tonight Show," his Middle America fans will be happy and totally forget that this ever even happened. For them, it'll be like old times. "Who was that guy who hosted this for a couple months, Mabel? Conner? Conehead? I don't remember..."
And so it goes.
This is what NBC is praying for.
An end to its nightmare, where everyone just goes back to sleep. This worked for Letterman, who was rocked by a potentially career-ending sex scandal that now has been completely absorbed by fans and non-fans alike. The trial - if there is a trial - could change that, but for now, it's a yawner. No one cares.
But I think beyond the severe collateral damage to NBC's rep, the damage to Leno could be severe as well.
A new image and particularly virulent image of Leno has taken hold in the press and with his competitors (who have their own reasons to scuttle Jay...).
Before: Loyal company man who's just doing his job.
Now: Duplicitous office politician and master conniver who carefully plotted his return to "Tonight" by lobbying affiliates and patiently waiting for Conan to fail.
Letterman has worked this angle vigorously and you should know exactly why, if you don't already: A lot of Leno's old "Tonight" viewers drifted over to him, and he's working to remind them that the guy they used to watch is not who he pretends to be.
It's all business with Dave, and not as personal as you might think. He doesn't want to lose the bounty of viewers that propelled him into first place. (He does hate Leno too, which makes all this "fun" as well.)
But he does have a point. Said he, "Five years ago when NBC said to Jay, 'You know what, Conan is going to take over your job in five years.' That's when you say, 'OK, fine no hard feelings. You call ABC. You call Fox. You try to get my job. But you leave."
"It's just part of evolution. You get fired and get another gig. Don't hang around waiting for somebody to drop dead."
In fact, it's now apparent - Jay did exactly that. He waited around for someone to drop dead. He was NBC's insurance policy and he knew it. The network's line that it was making money off this cheap venture was probably true - to an extent.
But I'm now convinced NBC wanted a back-up plan even more. Just in case...just in case the new guy didn't work out.
Leno knew this, or had to know. He's a smart guy. He understood the pressure on the affiliates. He understood their late local news problems would take precedence over everything. He knew - intuitively at the very least - that his show wouldn't feed viewers to 'em, and if they didn't get viewers, then the faucet for "Tonight" would be reduced to a dribble as well.
He knew - or had to - that Conan's days would be numbered if HIS show failed. One failure would lead to the other, and then what would happen?
He had to know, finally, that affiliates would demand his return. "Worked before," they would argue. "Will work again."
Of course, this is exactly how it played out.
Will this view of Leno - which I believe is largely accurate one - take hold and ultimately prevail?
It may well, but at the end of the day, it may not matter either. Reason: I don't think his viewers will give a damn. . They'll say: Give us a monologue, and "Jay Walking," and "Headlines." Ask Mel Gibson or Taylor Lautner questions we'd ask. Joke around with Kevin Eubanks.
Do all that and Leno wins - again.
Yes, his legacy is tarnished.
But as Jay has said many times before: "I'm not a legacy guy."