A new front is about to open in the late-night war between Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno: the battle for Emmy love.
While probably a longshot, there’s at least the possibility that the TV Academy this summer could end up nominating NBC’s "The Tonight Show" twice in the outstanding variety, music or comedy series category — once for "The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien" and again for "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" (version 2.0).
John Leverence, the Academy’s senior VP for awards, confirmed to TheWrap Wednesday that both versions of "Tonight" will be eligible for nomination. The questions now are: Does either show stand a shot of getting nominated, and how will the Emmy campaigns for both unfold?
On the latter front, it’s typically a show’s production studio that leads the charge for both Emmy nominations and, later, for the actual award. In this case, NBC’s Universal Media Studios is behind both versions of "Tonight."
UMS isn’t speaking, but this much seems certain: Given the less-than-amicable dissolution of the Coco-NBC marriage, it’s all but certain that UMS won’t be spending a dime on behalf of an Emmy campaign for "The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien."
Instead, if UMS follows recent precedent, the studio’s nomination campaign will focus on its late-night lineup as a whole — with Leno’s "Tonight Show," "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," "Saturday Night Live" and "Last Call With Carson Daly" being grouped together in ads touting NBCU’s late-night assets.
If Team Coco wants to mount an Emmy campaign, meanwhile, it will almost certainly have to pay for it on its own. Like NBC, reps for O’Brien declined to discuss Emmy strategy.
But industry insiders wonder whether O’Brien needs to spend heavily this year, or do anything else to garner nominations.
"I can imagine a world in which Conan gets nominated without campaigning," one showbiz veteran said.
All the attention on those final weeks certainly didn’t hurt, either.
"The caliber of the shows was so high in those last weeks," the insider said.
And if Emmy voters are looking to help ratings for this year’s broadcast, they’d be foolish not to consider finding a way to make sure at least O’Brien — and maybe Leno — were both in attendance at the August Emmys.
The two-shot of Leno and O’Brien as the nominees in their category were being read would make the James Cameron-Katherine Bigelow tension from last month’s Oscars pale in comparison.
What’s more, NBC is airing this year’s Emmy Awards. Imagine the potential for a classic TV moment if O’Brien were to win an Emmy this August — and accept in on the air of the network that dumped him.
That said, as high-profile as Leno and O’Brien have been this season, their Emmy track record suggests nominations are hardly a given — and wins are even more of a long-shot.
The last time the Academy nominated a Leno-hosted TV series was when "Tonight" got a nomination back in 2003. O’Brien’s last at-bat in the show category came in 2007, the same year his version of "Late Night" won for writing in a variety/music/comedy show.
Indeed, the biggest challenge facing both Leno and O’Brien in terms of an Emmy win won’t be each other, but more likely Jon Stewart: "The Daily Show" has won the best show category for an amazing seven consecutive years.
In terms of getting nominated, for either "Tonight" to get into the race, one previous nominee will have be edged out. "Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" have become staples of the category, as is CBS’s "Late Show with David Letterman" and "Real Time with Bill Maher."
NBC’s "Saturday Night Live" might be the most vulnerable to being displaced by a "Tonight" nomination, since it hasn’t been a particularly memorable year for the long-running show, and it’s not a presidential election year.
It’s also worth noting that, despite plenty of media hype around Conan and Leno, there could be two dark horses in this year’s late-night Emmy races.
First, in terms of breaking into the nominations, don’t count out CBS’ "Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson." Fergy is a media darling whose pop culture buzz has grown louder every year. If producer Worldwide Pants mounted an aggressive campaign, it’s not hard to imagine "Late Late Show" (finally) getting some Emmy love.
But Pants could be split: Flagship "Late Show with David Letterman" has also had a banner year — from President Obama’s visit, to Letterman’s handling of his sextortion scandal to Dave’s Jay-bashing this winter. If there were ever a year Letterman might be poised to unseat Stewart, this could be it.
And the war goes on.