Late Night Wars: Game's On!

A week after Conan O’Brien’s shift to “The Tonight Show,” his new competitors are making some major moves of their own.

Stephen Colbert grabbed headlines – and wrote some – by taking his show to Iraq and serving as guest editor of the revamped Newsweek. Jimmy Kimmel is getting primetime exposure with his “Game Night” specials airing before the NBA Finals.

But the big, possibly game-changing news is that David Letterman reportedly is about to extend his contract two years, to 2012.

That suggests a re-energized Letterman is determined to stick around in a bid to regain the late-night ratings crown he lost to Jay Leno in 1995. It’s also a sign that the 62-year-old Letterman is thinking legacy: Going until 2012 would give him 19 years in the 11:30 p.m. slot, surpassing Leno’s 17 in “The Tonight Show” seat both coveted.

A contract extension also would bring Letterman to 30 years as a late-night host, counting his old NBC 12:30 a.m. gig. That would match the tenure of his hero, Johnny Carson.

O’Brien, meanwhile, got off to a strong start in the former Carson post, even if the ratings leveled off. Letterman came close to winning the ratings race Monday night – likely buoyed by an appearance by Howard Stern, who lambasted Leno.

The late night game is still all about numbers, even if those days are numbered: We might be entering the last great late-night battle. With more media options vying for viewers’ attention – and TIVO and Web video services like Hulu allowing audiences to watch shows whenever they want – less folks will be getting nocturnally delivered laughs at night, if at all.

Still, the specter of Colbert, Kimmel, O’Brien and their comedy godfather Letterman turning up their games a notch in the name of competition could mean happily sleepless nights for old-time channel flippers, and give us some great comedy.

This is the kind of war where the only casualty, occasionally, is good taste. Bring it on!

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.

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