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January 19, 2010

Why the Conan-Leno Battle Matters

Conan When I was a kid I had a crush on Jack Paar.  Honest.  Never warmed up to Johnny Carson the same way, thought Dick Cavett was pretty good and then kind of gave up on everything but Nightline.

All those shows are either gone or transformed and for me late night TV is more likely to be The Daily Show and something off the DVR or, worst case (but not too bad) Law and Order, Cold Case, NCIS, Closer, Leverage etc. reruns.  Mostly though I read at the same time.  Late night really doesn't feel like home anymore.  Even so, I've been riveted by the Leno-Conan battle and not for the reason you might think.  For me, it's just another symptom of the Generation Gap - this time moving the other direction from the way it was when I was younger.

For many of us, this is simple: Jay Leno is old and grouchy (well not as old as I am but still...) and O'Brien younger, more creative and definitely holder of the "younger, cooler, hipper" mandate.  (Yes I know there's David Letterman (and George Lopez) but for now let's think about NBC.)

Younger viewers have been up late watching Conan for years - after many of the rest of us had gone to bed - and they know and like his ironic, goofy, smart persona.  The Harvard-educated O'Brien, (who wrote for the university's humor magazine, the Harvard Lampoon,) and served as a long-time writer for Saturday Night live and later for The Simpson's, is a perfect 21st Century personality. 

Leno, on the other hand, is a real 20th Century man.  He came up through comedy clubs and Tonight Show appearances and is a car collector and motorcycle freak.  His humor is less subtle and, somehow, although less arch than Conan it's also less friendly.  Mostly though, it's old-school.  In my view, it's for the dwindling older audience and not for the emerging majority of TV viewers (and of Americans) born well after we Boomers had finished college.  

It's funny, but as much as I loathe the idea of age discrimination, I also see this decision as a symptom of a generational division visible in the women's movement, in life on the Web and in the politics that brought out so many younger voters for Barack Obama and then betrayed them with posturing and partisanship.

I've written about, and been on panels about, the generational divide.  The economic crisis has only exacerbated it as young people consider the disappearing Social Security benefits and their own futures in a world where job security and benefits is hazy history.  They're mad at the Boomers, blame us for more than we're responsible for and often have no idea what we really accomplished in the 60's and 70's -- for the better.   Events like this one, however superficial and entertainment-based, are just another example of the in which they are too often held.  NBC will pay for that -- in the PR game it already has (did you see the Golden Globes?) and, I fear, in a larger sense, so will the rest of us "older" Americans.  We should be listening to them about more than product preferences and if we don't, we'll be sorry.

A version of this post first appeared on Samuels' personal blog, Don't Gel too Soon.  Cynthia Samuels is Managing Editor, Causes, for Care2, a blogger here and a Contributing Editor at BlogHer.

This is an original 50-Something Moms Blog.