Sunday, February 14, 2010

Trying to Make Sense, Academically, of the "Tonight Show" Fiasco

The bizarre corner of American pop culture known as "The Late Night Wars" reached a fever pitch during the month of January 2010. Some found the matter to be so pressing that they actually took to the streets to protest what they saw as injustice. “Team Coco,” as they called themselves, rallied to support Conan O’Brien whom they felt was being unjustly fired from his job as the host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” the same program hosted by the legendary Johnny Carson and O’Brien’s predecessor and successor Jay Leno. Those that found themselves siding with “Team Leno” were not quite as moved to make their voices heard in the public square (or, in this case, in front NBC headquarters in Los Angeles). It could be said that Jay Leno’s fans did not feel the need to protest because, after all, their guy won. But, there are also sociological factors to consider. “Team Coco” tended to be made up of young people – people with the energy and time to protest such a matter as a television show. “Team Leno” tended to be older and from the “heartland” of America – not the kind of people you normally find in street protests. Conan O’Brien was too weird, too Ivy League for middle-America. Jay Leno’s appeal to heartland American values is what makes him more attractive to advertisers and it is why he’ll be taking his old job back in March. From an American Studies standpoint, this is an interesting issue because it is illustrative of what is truly important to a substantial number of Americans in 2010. With two wars, a crumbling economy, a potential breakthrough in healthcare reform, and a government in gridlock, the debate over who deserves to host “The Tonight Show” might seem trivial to anyone with a firm grasp of the day’s important issues. This latest round of the Late Night Wars was just another scandal in a long line of celebrity scandals that have captivated the American attention span at the expense of those other, more pressing issues. O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, Brangelina, Jon and Kate, the various Michael Jackson scandals, and many others have served as snapshots of their respective times of what matters to Americans at those times, or at least what the media says is important. That is another matter for another discussion.

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