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Late night collides with reality

By Mary Fischer
CNN Headline News

O'Brien and Leno
Conan O'Brien, left, talks to Jay Leno on the set of the "Tonight" show.
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Conan O'Brien
Jay Leno
Tom Brokaw

(CNN) -- In an uncertain world, NBC has decided to give us all something to hold onto -- Conan O'Brien is going to take over hosting "The Tonight Show" when Jay Leno retires ... in five years.

That's right. If you were worried about what late-night programming would be like in 2009, rest easy. "The Tonight Show" mantle has been passed on already. Set your TiVo now.

It isn't the first time that NBC has taken a long-range approach to programming. Tom Brokaw is leaving "NBC Nightly News" after this year's presidential election, and Brian Williams is going to take over for him. We found that out in May 2002.

Why is NBC limiting itself to half a decade out? Tim Russert probably will leave "Meet the Press" sometime within the next 20 years. Are we just supposed to wonder who will take over for him until he retires in 2025? And how am I supposed to enjoy Al Roker on "Today" if I don't know who will be doing the weather in the morning for NBC for the next 50 years?

What is NBC thinking? It's not that I don't think O'Brien should be the next "Tonight Show" host. I just don't understand why in this day and age of reality shows, NBC would decide Leno's successor without throwing some sort of "American Idol" contest. I don't really watch reality shows, but it seems people enjoy them. And if they like deciding who will be the next pop singer to release a CD, they probably would enjoy programming the late-night shows.

Have the would-be hosts compete in all the main categories late night is known for -- "topical monologue," "joke around with band leader," "prop comedy," "help celebrities promote whatever they're there to promote," "animals are cute, make them do tricks," "pretend you're interested in the audience" and perhaps the most challenging category of all, "normal person suddenly becomes famous for something -- talk to them about said thing that has already become boring."

Wouldn't you like to spend a dollar a phone call to make sure your favorite candidate becomes the next person to fill the seat behind the big desk?

I understand O'Brien has been saying he wants an earlier time slot and was willing to leave NBC to get it. The peacock network didn't want to lose him, so it made it clear he's the chosen one. But I think NBC could have had him host the reality show to pick Leno's replacement. That way he would have his own prime-time gig, when people actually are awake and watching. I'm sure he'd take the promotion.

Plus, O'Brien could take over on "The Tonight Show" when whoever won the job on the reality show tanked in the first month. And remember, that's the first month of 2009.

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