In this corner: a late-night talk-show host with a puffy coif and a goofy smile. His opponent: an edgy, telegenic smart aleck who poses a threat. The battle between Jay Leno and David Letterman? Think again. This time around, the players are Conan O’Brien and Greg Kinnear, and the showdown could determine who will eventually host NBC’s Late Night program. This week, Kinnear, the impudent host of E! Entertainment Television’s Talk Soup, takes over for Bob Costas on NBC’s Later at 1:30 a.m. (EST). NBC is hoping he’ll help reestablish the network’s supremacy in the wee hours-but is that all? Although Kinnear, 30, is still an unknown quantity, his L.A.-based show could spell trouble for O’Brien. ”There’s still a lot of talk about Conan in terms of ‘Will he ever be comfortable as a performer?”’ says Bill Carter, author of The Late Shift, a chronicle of the Dave-Jay skirmish. ”The jury’s still out on Kinnear, but I get the impression he’s more appealing on camera. If he comes on and he’s very hot, you’ll see the pressure on Conan increase tremendously.” NBC’s Rick Ludwin, senior vice president of late night, insists there has been no talk about Kinnear at 12:30. And the players themselves are doing their best to brush off the notion of a brewing rivalry. ”I’ll do the show for two weeks, maybe three, then I take over for Conan,” Kinnear cracked at the January press tour in Los Angeles. ”I’ll have Jay’s job by March, and I should be sitting in for Tom Brokaw come June.” Recently, Kinnear was invited to appear on Late Night (although he canceled because of a snowstorm), and O’Brien is not dwelling on the Kinnear threat. ”It’s a lot of what if’s,” says the 30-year-old O’Brien. ”It’s really a waste of time to think about it.” Besides, Kinnear isn’t the only possible dark cloud on O’Brien’s horizon. He must also contend with Jon Stewart, whose eponymous talk show now airs opposite Late Night on MTV and is likely to siphon off more than a few prized Generation X viewers. Meanwhile, CBS-with the guidance of Letterman’s team-is cooking up its own Conan challenger. ”If we find somebody good, we’re hoping we’ll get it on in the fall,” says a CBS source. ”If we don’t, we’ll wait.” One name being tossed around is Tom Snyder, the fiftysomething CNBC host who, as it happens, was bumped out of his late-night spot 12 years ago by Letterman. But does Tom Snyder know how to pronounce Lollapalooza? Then again, does Conan? There are doubts that O’Brien-who sometimes looks like he’s dressed up for Sunday brunch at the country club-really appeals to the generation that gave us grunge, gangsta rap, and Beavis and Butt-head. O’Brien admits Late Night hit some potholes in its initial phase, but he’s optimistic. ”My attitude is, it’s February; I’m here. I’m doing a show that just keeps getting better.” In fact, Late Night’s ratings have held steady since the show’s September debut. O’Brien points to such adjustments as a shorter monologue and a more defined role for that fat guy on the couch, Andy Richter. He’s still there-which is enough to enrage some critics-but Richter has become a roving player, cub-reporting from the Super Bowl and the New Orleans Mardi Gras and backing O’Brien in most of the comedy bits. Yet those changes could be mere window dressing if CBS and Letterman can come up with a more tantalizing alternative. ”I would say Conan’s a long shot,” says Carter when asked about who will rule late, late night. ”He’s going to have to improve between now and September, because when September comes around, CBS is going to have a show on, and they’re liable to really kick his butt.” O’Brien thinks otherwise. ”I’m betting on me. I’m betting on everybody that works here. I’m betting on being here.” Them’s fighting words. *
Posted March 4 1994 — 12:00 AM EST
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