Heeeere's Jay! And Dave! And Conan!

Media Reviews for Media People: Late-Night Shows Return From Strike

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- With the writer's strike still ongoing, Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg casts a critical eye on some of TV's mid-season series to help marketers determine which may prove to be the best showcases for their ads and products. Here, he looks at the return of the late night hosts, some working with writers (David Letterman, Craig Ferguson) and some without (Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien.)
David Letterman
David Letterman Credit: CBS/John Paul Filo

Where/when you'll see them:
"The Late Show With David Letterman," CBS, 11:35 p.m. to 12:35 a.m. EST
"The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," NBC, 11:35 p.m. to 12:35 p.m. EST
"The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson," CBS, 12:35 a.m. to 1:35 a.m. EST
"Late Night With Conan O'Brien," NBC, 12:35 a.m. to 1:35 a.m. EST
"Jimmy Kimmel Live," ABC, 12:05 p.m. to 1:05 p.m. EST

What you'll see: Surprise! You don't always need professional writers to put on a top-quality late-night show. America's late-night hosts returned to the airwaves and the question for advertisers is whether they want their promotional messages to appear next to traditional, formulaic talk-show fare, or next to something a little more edgy and interesting.

David Letterman's Worldwide Pants production company, which owns both Mr. Letterman's CBS show and Craig Ferguson's "Late Late Show" that airs after it, was able to craft an interim deal with the Writers Guild of America that allows its members to come back to work and write monologues and skits. "The Tonight Show" and "Late Night," however, are owned by NBC, which means Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien are left to their own devices to fill time. (If you want to see for yourself, Defamer.com has posted video of each of the late night hosts' monologues.)

Would it be shocking to say that, at least for now, Mr. Leno and Mr. O'Brien are more interesting to watch? David Letterman's effort reminded me of the days when Norm McDonald used to imitate him on "Saturday Night Live" -- right down to the odd peals of laughter that Mr. Letterman interjects after various remarks. In other words, it was almost as if Dave hadn't been off for eight weeks. Oh, sure, Mr. Letterman's opening monologue made reference to the bushy beard he has been growing since the WGA went on strike Nov. 5, but much of the rest of the material fell flat -- especially a Top 10 list that relied on complaints from striking writers.

It was obvious Mr. Letterman was relying on prepared lines when he was soliciting questions from the audience, whereas Mr. Leno really seemed to be riffing and ad-libbing when taking questions from his crowd. Jimmy Kimmel, also without writers over on ABC, opened with a joke about Jamie Spears, but then spent most of his monologue complaining about the writer's strike and how it was preventing actors who are promoting movies from coming on the talk shows.

The "without a net" feeling was what set Mr. Leno and Mr O'Brien apart. Mr. Leno essentially hit the stage and did a stand-up routine, freely admitting that he had just tried the jokes out on his wife before doing them on TV. Mr. O'Brien's set was even edgier: The lanky, redheaded late-night host spent a little more than 20 minutes free-associating, dancing on his desk and watching his wedding ring spin for 36 seconds. Is this what America's movie studios, which do a lot of advertising on late-night talk shows, want to advertise on? It's a question that needs to be asked again and again over the next few weeks (of course, if the companies that own the studios were that concerned, they'd go back and settle the strike), but -- for now, at least -- Mr. O'Brien's antics make for an oddly compelling sight, sort of like a viral web video.

Speaking of web video, Mr. Leno showed a short vignette from the guys at JibJab, the website that creates hilarious animated bits that generate notice online. It's extremely telling that one of the nation's most watched TV programs is relying on web-based entertainment to fill the hours while professional writers tread the sidewalks. It's also telling that the JibJab short was more entertaining than nearly anything Letterman, O'Brien, Leno and Ferguson put on for their first night back.
Conan O'Brien
Conan O'Brien Credit: NBC/Dana Edelson

Mr. Ferguson's show seemed to have the most polish. His monologue, long a highlight of the program, was clever and deft, as was a funny opening sketch where he pretended to be tending sheep in Scotland, only to have to scuttle back to the U.S. when Worldwide Pants struck its WGA deal. No guests appeared last night, and Mr. Ferguson relied solely on comedy bits -- making good use of his WGA staff.

Antics and stalling tactics will only go so far on late night, however. Over time, it's usually the guests that bring in the eyeballs. Viewers expect funny jokes, riffs and sketches. They don't necessarily know which celebrity or problem child, however, they are going to see on screen each evening. On this front, Mr. Letterman won hands-down last night, spending two segments kibitzing with Robin Williams. While "Tonight" scored presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, we can see him on TV almost any time (in fact, he was on CBS's "Early Show" this morning). The opportunity to see Bob Saget, as we did on Mr. O'Brien's show early this a.m., isn't a reason to channel-surf past midnight. Because Worldwide Pants has its deal, its programs could win the celebrity-booking battle. In the meantime, NBC's programs ought to keep up the improv. The frenetic juggle to entertain without having writerly backup is -- at least in these early returning moments -- fascinating.

What's at stake? Big bucks from advertisers, including movie studios and package-goods companies. Late-night TV has seen ratings decline precipitously since the strike began, particularly on NBC, and getting the eyeballs back is paramount for networks that don't relish the idea of taking on more make-goods in an already tight ad market or, worse yet, having to hand cash back to marketers who expected sizable viewership.

Who's on board? Movie studios were spotted running ads across all four shows, for films including "I Am Legend" and "Juno," among others. Ads for DVDs were also prevalent, as were commercials from companies such as Campbell Soup and Intuit's TurboTax.

Your ad here? Do you want a sure bet or people drawn to spectacle? For the traditional crowd, CBS's offerings seem more reliable. They are formulaic, sure, but that can also be comforting. They are likely to draw in the usual late-night audience. In this early going, NBC's late-night offerings could bring in a few gawkers who would normally be under the covers with their eyes closed. Either way, with a tight ad market on network TV, the return of original late-night programming ought to be welcome by marketers of all stripes.

Media buyers' verdict: One night does not a reliable ad buy make. "There's been enough buzz about it. It would be good to see if [the audience] has peaked, if people came back, if it builds," said Steve Kalb, senior VP-director of broadcast at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Mullen. Best to see how the shows perform in the days ahead, said Shari Anne Brill, senior VP-director of programming at Aegis Group's Carat. "To me, the more interesting thing is not what they are able to do their first night back, because they really had time to prepare for it, but how will this play out on an ongoing basis? What is the show going to be like in two weeks?"
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