There are only a few things left to say about NBC's historic mismanagement of the Leno/O'Brien disaster, but they are important nonetheless. The top thing as I see it is that this isn't over yet. Leno is going to have to work hard to rebuild the lost audience for The Tonight Show after the Olympics, because those people aren't going to come back on their own.
Not all of them, and probably not a majority of them.
Leno will be under intense and much deserved pressure to quickly restore the ratings, but it'll be even worse with Conan O'Brien having set the bar with his departure. It didn't get much press, but O'Brien's last few shows did stellar ratings that soundly stomped every other show on network and cable television at 11:35. It's pointless to make jokes about O'Brien having to quit in order to beat Letterman in the ratings because that's not O'Brien's problem anymore -- it's Leno's and NBC's problem, and it's a big one.
Leno may see a short boost in ratings for his return just like he saw artificially high numbers when his prime time show debuted, but those people are going to check in to see what's new and then check out again. If Leno doesn't start above where O'Brien was when he left, he and NBC will instantly be seeing negative press about coming back with lower ratings than O'Brien's shove-off, and then they'll start dropping as the train wreck gawkers wander away.
Which is exactly what I think will happen.
At what of Conan? Nah, he's not going to Showtime or HBO. That stage is too small for him now and everybody knows it. It'd be a repeat of Howard Stern going to satellite. Remember him?
It'd be pretty funny if he ended up signing on with USA though, one of the rumored cable networks interested in signing him, since USA is owned by NBC Universal, the company he just quit. But it'd also make sense that if he were going to cable, he'd go to one of the more profitable stations (USA, last time I heard, was more profitable for NBC-U than NBC was.) But the prestige is less, the money would be less, and the potential audience size would be questionable. On the other hand there wouldn't be any network affiliate stations to whine and cry like happened with Leno and whatever airs after wouldn't complain about the lead-in because we're talking about paid programming.
On one final note -- hopefully the last of this saga until Conan lands someplace -- this tirade by Bill Simmons is dishonest and pathetic:
Conan's show sucked at 11:35. That's the reason the ratings were down -- not because of his lead-ins. What's Jon Stewart's lead-in? What's SNL's lead-in? Conan did a watered-down, toothless version of his 12:35 show, and even his die-hard fans weren't crazy about it. These are the facts.
No, that's what's called opinion. The ratings were down because Leno's older audience was watching for Leno, not for The Tonight Show, and rather than follow Leno to 10pm they simply quit watching television. O'Brien's ratings dropped overall as did the demo, but the demo didn't drop proportionally. That means older viewers tuned out in greater numbers than overall viewers, which O'Brien's fault and was not something he could control.
And that's a fact. The rest is ignorant speculation from a guy who works at ESPN of all places. Simmons knows less about this mess than I do.
It's amazing the inane things people will say to get attention for themselves off events that have nothing to do with them.
Post-thought: How long until we see a film about this, like The Late Shift?