NBC: Never Be Closing (aka the Conan debacle)

January 12, 2010

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I wrote last summer about Conan O'Brien's big, much-anticipated move to The Tonight Show, closing with this paragraph:

But ratings be damned. Our boy has reached the Promised Land. Am I the only Conan fan who couldn't help but grin happily, seeing that opening sketch of Show One — with Conan running from New York to Los Angeles — as a sort of victory lap?

Insert title card: SEVEN MONTHS LATER.

Ratings, it would seem, could not be damned. Nor could about a dozen other factors in this late-night morass. The victory lap I mentioned will soon be replaced with Conan walking out the door.

I've been watching with much fascination over the past several days as the whole NBC-Leno-Conan-primetime-latenight drama unfolded. The various TV blogs that I read regularly have been invaluable, with, among others, insightful analysis and opinions by Alan Sepinwall, Maureen Ryan, and James Poniewozik.

Then, today, Conan O'Brien released a cordial but pointed statement that said, basically, thanks but no thanks to the whole mess.

You look at NBC and what they have done with this whole Leno-Conan debacle and the whole Leno in prime-time "experiment," and it just reeks of, above all else, pure desperation. Many have made the argument, and I don't disagree, that moving Leno to prime-time was basically a sign of a network giving up on the very notion of having a viable prime-time.

And now, it has backfired big time. It's like a perfect storm of business forces have forced NBC to make a hopelessly desperate move to undo their first desperate move — and Conan is the one left twisting in the wind.

Tonight, on his show, Conan took a number of shots at NBC ("Welcome to NBC, where our new slogan is, 'No longer just screwing up prime-time.'"), and they were fun to watch. Conan has always been a master of graceful self-deprecation, and he managed to still do that tonight. But make no mistake: The claws were out, and Conan did not spare NBC — or its inability to figure out a way to do seemingly anything right in the floundering business model that is the traditional broadcast network — in his monologue.

What's next for Conan O'Brien? Time will tell. But NBC's attempts to have everything both ways concerning Leno and Conan have proven disastrous. Awful miscalculation at best, and terribly shabby treatment of all of its talent from Conan on down (who aren't named Jay Leno, of course), at worst.

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8 comments on this post

    Conan should just walk away from that network.

    ever since Johnny Carson retired they have mishandled everything with The Tonight Show, starting with the David Letterman/ Jay Leno drama.

    bunch of loons at that network.

    I watched that first conan-ized "Tonight Show" and at the point where he said we're skipping the monolouge because of time constraints (A monolouge is one of the most important parts of a nightly comedy show), to do that retarded scene at Universal Studios aboard the tram (it went on and on and on without ever being funny) he kinda lost me. Apparently Conan was not ready for the top and NBC would have been smart to include a clause reverting things to their previous arrangements should this experiment have failed. But Conan is not "Tonight Show" caliber. He's a relatively lousy comedian, which shows in the forced nature of much of his half-baked material. He just looks nervous. And on a show as big as that, nervous is a huge handicap. You MUST be comfortable.

    Lousy and Half-Baked works later on in the night at like 3am, but even Craig Furguson is funny, Jimmy Kimmel is funny. I laugh at most things and can't laugh hardly at Conan. In fact the audience doesn't laugh that hard at Conan. So if Fox want's him they can take him and NBC can put Leno back on the tonight show where his ratings would never be the same. R.I.P NBC.

    On the good side of this I have learned what not to do as a network boss...

    Anyways thanks Jammer for keeping the blog going, you always have some insight into these things and it's appreciated.

    Dave was taking some good shots at his old employer also. Not that I have anything against Leno, but I hope Conan sticks it to NBC good in this mess. I hope he walks with a pot of gold and moves to Fox and steals market share from both NBC and CBS just to screw em all. And here's another thing I don't get with all this, if NBC is bowing to the wishes of its station owners by saying that Leno is killing their nightly news lead in, what the heck do they have that's better? I can't think of anything. I Biggest Loser really going to add that many viewers that will slide to the late news? Doubtful. NBC should have stuck with Leno at that time slot kept tweaking the show to find the winning formula if that's what the really wanted. 7 months with almost no major tweaks to the format hardly seems like a good test case. So it goes.

    I've never been a faithful viewer of late night TV. I was a fairly regular viewer of Conan's late show (back when Andy was still on). But late night shows aren't really my thing.

    At any rate, because I don't keep up with these things, I was under the impression that Leno was leaving THE TONIGHT SHOW, because he was retiring. I did come across his new show a few weeks ago and was surprised to see that basically it was exactly what he had been doing before except now the show was named after him. My question "Why did he step down from THE TONIGHT SHOW then?" He's doing the exact same thing except 90 minutes earlier. And the shows are taped, not broadcast live so I would imagine he's still working the same hours.

    My question: What was the whole point of this then? If NBC wanted to see Conan be the new TS host then Leno should have been let out of his contract and move on to HBO or some other network if he still wanted to do his thing.

    I haven't watched Conan in ages, so I haven't seen any of the TS under his "command." But again, he wasn't really doing anything all that different in terms of format so I'm surprised he's been having such a difficult transition as I've been reading. I'm not saying it's easy to host. I'm sure I'd be terrible at it myself. But NBC seemed to have a perfectly running machine. In my opinion Jay Leno needs to make up his mind: does he want to continue to host THE TONIGHT SHOW or not? If not, then he needs to find another network to do this thing.

    Jeff, it's a kind of complicated situation. You see the agreement for Conan to take over the Tonight Show was finalized several years ago. The thinking back then was that by 2009 people would be ready for someone new to take over the show. What NBC didn't realize at the time was that Leno's ratings would remain pretty strong.

    Basically the people at NBC didn't want to lose Leno to another network, but the contract they had with Conan wouldn't let them keep Leno on the Tonight Show without being forced to pay Conan a very tidy sum.

    So NBC came up with the Jay Leno Show to kill two birds with one stone. The first bird was that it would keep Leno on their network. The second bird, in theory, was that it would save them money because a talk show is cheaper to produce than a scripted series.

    Well flash forward just a few months and that second bird turned out to be a real beast. Leno's show wasn't getting very strong ratings. It was still profitable for NBC (I believe), but NBC affiliates weren't so happy. Since Leno came on right before local news programs his poor performance was actually HURTING those news programs. Turns out these affiliates make a lot of money off news and weren't very happy about Leno costing them a chunk of it.

    So they complained to NBC, basically threatening to pre-empt Leno. This is how NBC ended up where they're at now. Despite Leno's poor ratings they still don't want to lose him.

    Conan actually hasn't been doing THAT badly, and as his statement points out NBC should really give him the time to build his show (the same way they gave Leno time when he first started off on rocky footing). But I think NBC still sees Leno as they more valuable person (otherwise they probably wouldn't be so willing to let Conan go). In the long term this is probably another mistake, but only time will tell.

    I think Leno was always seen as the comfy choice for NBC. Conan always pushed the envelope in terms of outrageous humor and parodies, and execs feat that could alienate more viewers. Some people seem afraid of change and evolution, which is what Conan brings to the Tonight Show, after countless tired years of Leno.

    I find it sad they'd shaft Conan after nearly 17 years of good late-night TV. I don't think Leno is that relevant nowadays.

    Rumor has it that Leno and his goons pulled NBC's strings to move Johnny Carson out of the chair.

    If Fox were to snatch Conan, they'd have a gold mine in prime-time. This would be an opportunity to reunite him with his former Simpsons colleagues. At least both Tim Long and Mike Reiss (Simpsons producers) have background as talk-show writers/showrunners. Long ran Letterman's staff in the 90's, while Reiss wrote for Johnny Carson.

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