Jaci Stephen: 'Leno versus Conan is the new Rumble in the Jungle, and I can't get enough of it'

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The Independent Online

You know when something is really big news here when the essence of the story can be reduced to just four words.

One of the hottest topics of recent weeks has been "Rain in Los Angeles", a headline of such cataclysmic proportions, it dominated not only local news bulletins, but every dining table conversation within a 50 mile radius.

You would think the city had never seen water, let alone witnessed it pouring from the heavens. People caught unawares emerged from restaurants, staring blankly into the street like Dr Who sidekicks, arriving at the designated departure point, only to find that the Tardis had already gone.

Coming from Cardiff, one of the wettest cities in the UK, I was invariably the only person on the street with an umbrella, as soaked pedestrians gazed on enviously. Ha! They hadn't read their Bibles, whereas I was all too aware of the parable of the 10 virgins, five of whom hadn't taken enough oil for their lamps while waiting the arrival of the bridegroom. The story is allegedly a warning about the day of reckoning; to me, it means never, ever, go without an umbrella, bridegroom or no bridegroom, so there.

"Will Brangelina break up?" That's been another four-word obsession and a topic for which people in Hollywood have an almost pathological obsession. The ongoing saga about the celebrity couple's marriage, and whether Brad Pitt will leave current wife Angelina Jolie to return to first wife Jennifer Aniston, is one of the major soap operas of the day. At Sunday's Grammy Awards, E! (Entertainment) Channel reliably informed us from the red carpet that the previous night, the couple had been seen very much into each other. Purely on this evidence alone, said an interviewee, they were definitely not going to break up. I don't care two figs one way or the other, but I do wonder how Angelina manages to sleep at night next to Brad's weird new beard. Waking up next to that yeti must put more of a dent in her love than ever our Jen could manage to do.

Even bigger than the rain and Brangelina, however, has been the "Jay Leno versus Conan" story. This plot has rumbled on for weeks and remains strangely fascinating.

In brief: Leno was hosting the LA-based Tonight Show at 11.35pm, and when he was moved to primetime last year, failed to attract the same ratings. Now he's getting his old show back, while his replacement Conan O'Brien, who didn't want to move to a later slot, is leaving, albeit with £20m.

The story has become one of the major sources of material for comedians. David Letterman, who hosts his late-night TV show from New York, is enjoying it hugely, reportedly never having forgiven Leno for taking over the Tonight Show from Johnny Carson, when he so wanted it for himself.

Meanwhile, in LA, O'Brien puts on a brave face, trying to make light of what is clearly a very hurtful situation. Leno continues to milk it, sparing viewers no details about the whole history of the story, right down to the nitty-gritty of NBC executives' part in the drama, adding that he bears Conan no animosity. I'll bet he doesn't.

It is inconceivable that any British TV host, in the light of such a debacle, would ever spend huge chunks of a show making jokes at the expense of the network on which they were appearing. The most Jonathan Ross, for example, has ever managed, has been a couple of light-hearted jokes about what he can or cannot say in the light of Sachsgate. Yet Leno, telling viewers they had a right to know what had been going on behind the scenes, has been making fun of NBC executives in the most extraordinary manner – even after he knew he was being handed back the best gig.

Viewing figures are, of course, important to any network, but in the US they are everything, and late-night TV has a kudos it has never acquired in the UK.

Quite why this particular story should be deemed a ratings puller is anathema to us Brits, yet O'Brien's ratings have increased dramatically as the story has unfolded.

The difference is that in the UK, our TV scandals are played out in our newspapers, especially where licence-payers money is concerned. It's a shame. Leno versus Conan is the new Rumble in the Jungle, and it has breathed new life into the LA gossip machine; I and millions of others just can't get enough of it.

And the real winner? Letterman. At least it's distracted the viewers who wondered why he can't keep his flies done up.

To read Jaci Stephen's LA diary in full, go to lanotsoconfidential.blogspot.com