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Late night gets political as Leno, O’Brien and Letterman look to the future

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Conan O’Brien’s departure from NBC’s was ugly from the start, but now that it’s over, and Jay Leno is about to reclaim “The Tonight Show,” who has come out looking like the bad guy?Jay Leno
This is important because if Leno and O’Brien end up competing against each other in the same time slot (with O’Brien on Fox or another network), how the public views each of them could affect their ratings.
Leno himself has acknowledged he has been getting bad press as a result of the shakeup, with fellow talk show hosts David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Rosie O’Donnell accusing him of pushing out O’Brien.
But judging by a poll of 65,000 respondents at celebrity website PopEater, the controversy doesn’t seem to have hurt Leno that much.
Forty-four percent of respondents said they would watch Leno over O’Brien if the two were to go head-to-head in the 11:35 p.m. time slot, with only 33 percent opting for O’Brien.
Leno enjoys the advantage of having reigned as the top-rated late night talk show host from 1995 until he gave up “The Tonight Show” in May 2009. After he left, David Letterman’s “Late Show” on CBS climbed to the top of the heap.
Can Leno reclaim some of those viewers from Letterman when he returns to “The Tonight Show”? Letterman has launched a nasty campaign against Leno, mocking him every chance he gets on his show.
Meanwhile, Leno has tried to take the high road, calling O’Brien a “great guy” during his show Monday. But of late he has fired back at Letterman during his monologues.
With Letterman “going negative,” and Leno having given what amounted to a speech on Monday with his side of the story, this late night war has turned into something like a political campaign.
For his part, O’Brien has ravaged NBC during his monologues, and he has never returned Leno’s favor by also calling him a “great guy.”
Conan O'BrienDespite the hipster “I’m with Coco” campaign that has emerged, especially online, in support of O’Brien, his $32.5 million payout may hurt his image.
True, we are in the age of corporate executives getting away with million dollar bonuses after their own failures, and Conan has scored sympathy for securing money for his staff.
But wouldn’t we all like to walk away with say, $30 million, after seven months of poor ratings, weak reviews and (to use one of O’Brien’s jokes) not even a new haircut?
In a PopEater poll, only 28 percent of respondents said they feel sorry for O’Brien now that he has received his huge payout, and 38 percent said they never did.
With none of the talk show hosts seeming to have a monopoly on public sympathy, they may want all want to work harder on their campaign skills, because this new age for the talk show arena looks to be as cut-throat as ever.

(Additional writing by Christine Kearney)

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