Torrid affair with redhead over, NBC wants Leno back, FOX open to sloppy seconds

or: in NBC late night Leno trumps Conan, Conan trumps Fallon, but ratings trumps all…worst rock, paper, scissors game ever!

As a young man I was raised by television, and growing up there were few things more exciting for me than being able to stay up late and watch the wonder and ‘over my head’ humor of The Tonight Show. Like clockwork, this program came on and I was dazzled by those curtains parting for Johnny Carson to the voice of Ed Mcmahon’s introduction. Johnny with his awkward heel to toe/hands in his pockets move. I loved the mock golf swing, and there was no one better at covering for a missed punchline than the dynamic duo of Johnny and Ed. I laughed at the skits, the characters, and the off-the-cuff antics when things weren’t going well. This man made the Tonight Show an institution, and an institution is to be revered and respected once it becomes more than the sum of it’s parts. The most recent debacle in the late night NBC line-up is more than just another misstep by the failing NBC network, but it is clearly a lack of respect for both Conan O’Brien, the viewing public, and the gravitas that a historic landmark like the Tonight Show should garner.

NBC has stepped in it this time in a big way. After a four month failed Leno primetime show and seven months of lower ratings with Conan they want to shake things up by moving Leno to a half hour show at 11:35 and push the Tonight Show back to 12:05. This is a terrible decision that they will regret and clearly weren’t prepared to make. First off, you do not move the Tonight Show, period. It has always been in that time slot and moving it might actually tear hole in the space-time continuum. Planets will spin off their axis and galaxies will collapse in on themselves because, little known fact, the Tonight Show IS the ‘God Particle’ scientists are looking for. The Tonight Show has always been what followed the news, as long as I’ve been alive anyway, and to put a half-hour act in that slot and push back the show would further kill the numbers, which I thought was the problem in the first place. Let’s face it, after midnight the numbers drop off dramatically for the Tonight Show; people watch his monologue and Jaywalking or whatever he does and maybe one interview before turning in for the night. With Jay doing a half-hour show and it ending, no one is going to stick around for another hour to watch Conan do more interviews, another monologue, etc.; that puts his musical guest finishing at 1am, and Fallon coming on after that. It will be counter-productive for everyone involved to ‘shake things up’ as it were if numbers are the issue here.

Secondly is the fact that all of this was put in motion years ago. I remember hearing the announcement by Conan that he would be taking over the Tonight Show in 2009. I was elated, and my first thought was that Leno would make a respectful exit like Johnny, riding off in to the sunset in some steam powered car he rebuilt by hand, and then Conan would take the late night throne as the King of Late Night. I was of course nervous that Conan would not play to the same audience, but I was still excited and I felt that it was well-deserved as an avid watcher of his show, with and without Andy Richter. Leno was all set to step down, all parties involved were ready to go forward and were looking at this as being a great move for all, but it seems that NBC fell on hard times they did not foresee, and now the tune has changed.

As things came to fruition I am betting it got dicey for everyone. NBC probably didn’t actually want to part with Leno, I am betting that they loved his numbers and didn’t want to go through with the change, but it was too late and they had contracts. So they put him in primetime and hoped for the best with his new show and with Conan. It hasn’t worked out how they thought apparently so they are making a rash and hasty decision, forcing Conan to make a choice as to play ball or get squeezed out. Like when you leave your girlfriend for another woman, but it’s just not the same, so you want to go back to the way it was; but it’s too late NBC, sorry. I don’t know what you were thinking, Conan is NOT Leno, and for the better in my opinion. I don’t know if you thought he would keep every viewer, but common sense would dictate that there was going to be a rough patch early on, while the show grew in to it’s new format and the host and staff experimented with what worked and didn’t to find a program and an audience that worked out well. The issue here is that NBC just seemed to be stumbling over itself to figure out how to have their cake and eat it too. They didn’t want to lose Leno or Conan so they came up with this weird TV line up where it seemed Leno was doing the EXACT same show at 10pm that he did at 11:35. It felt like NBC created a situation where the 11 NEWS was sandwiched between two Tonight Shows. Did you actually think that viewers would want to watch that much variety show every night? You had to know that both shows were going to suffer from this move, either that or you all need to get out of your ivory towers and listen to the people who you work for, the viewer.

What serves as the driving issue that Conan commented on is two-fold. The fact that NBC has gone the way of NFL franchises and has developed the patience of a 6 year old in a department store. When Leno took over for Carson and Letterman went to CBS, it took more than two years for Leno to garner his audience and supersede Letterman in the ratings. At seven months on the Tonight Show for Conan, and only four months on the Leno Show for Jay, it is ridiculous to view either of these massive changes as a turn key operation. It’s not like you just come on to the air and the audience is there, it needs to be developed, and it takes time to do that, which neither man got in this scenario. Also, Conan is dead-on in saying the NBC has given him no prime-time programming that leads in to the news and inevitably his show. You need a strong line up to get people on the channel and to stay there. He has gotten no such support, and frankly the Jay Leno Show really cut Conan off at the knees, souring people on more late night programming after the news by giving them their fill before thy even got to Conan.

Well this whole situation also reeks of foul play. I am thinking that there might be a more sinister scenario coming out of this. I think that as the time for the change approached people realized that this wasn’t going to be the spectacular change in programming they thought it was going to be. The deal currently offered to Conan seems like a brush-off deal to me. Leno wants his show back, he thought he might have been ready to leave, five years ago, but as the time approached it turned out he didn’t want to go anywhere. NBC and Leno have agreed to put him back on at his usual time, but in a half hour format, bumping Conan, Fallon, and Carson into the cheap seats, despite all the promises and contracts.

Knowing full well Conan would not play ball they are expecting him to quit, as he should, and in his vacancy they can put Leno back as host of the Tonight Show and just scrap the half-hour idea, looking back on it fondly with a laugh and a shrug. So in wanting Leno back on the Tonight Show, but having this contract with Conan that they just can’t kick him off, they offered this punked-out deal to make him leave so they can get Jay back on, since they’re paying him anyway, and get the old team back together again. The loser in all of this is Conan, and he is being treated with so little respect, like he didn’t hold down the Late Show for so many years and prove himself night in and night out as an anchor that made NBC ‘the’ network for late night shows. Leno/Conan ruled that programming format and their time slots forever, and now they seem to sloughing him off like the person at the party that doesn’t know they weren’t invited and aren’t welcome.

Conan won’t budge on this matter, as he shouldn’t, with a reported four-year contract worth $80 million dollars firmly planted in his pocket, he would rather bow out gracefully and see the Tonight Show not get whored out to the 12:05am slot, than to stick it out and ruin the house the Carson built. Honestly, having seen Conan over the years, his respect for the Tonight Show is so great, that he would leave just so it could stay at 11:35pm, and honor the tradition the show lends itself to; he has that much respect for the job.

The other victims of this whole thing is how it would effect the like of Jimmy Fallon and to a much lesser extent, Carson Daly. Their shows now have their respective time slots hammered down, and Fallon apparently does a decent show, though I am not a fan of his so I have never seen it. If Conan were to stay and the Tonight Show were to come on after midnight following the Jay Leno Show, then they would both be pushed back in to nothingness, relegated to even later slots pulling worse numbers themselves. I would submit that the Carson Daly Show would be cancelled on the whole. If you’ve ever been up that late, then you know that Daly is the last bit of programming before infomercials, and NBC would rather bump him off the schedule, since he costs money, than to cut in to valuable paid programming, which would dig in to their already dwindling bottom line. The move they have proposed to alleviate the issue of getting Leno back on after the news would have dire consequences for everyone’s rating, except Jay’s that is.

What is Conan to do here? With his respect for the Tonight Show, you can bet he will leave and let Leno come back. Conan won’t be treated like this and he will leave NBC all together on the most bitter of notes and scandalous uproar, very rich and free to do what he wants. Taking his show back is out of the question, that would be laying Fallon out to cook in the sun, having to pay him his contract, and of course Conan would spit in the face of NBC before being struck low and sent back to the show he hosted before, how embarrassing. No, Conan will look elsewhere soon. Don’t know what he’s going to do, neither does he, but he has many options and every door is open to him.

Fox has expressed interest in bringing him in for a Conan O’Brien late night show to go up against Leno, Letterman, and the like. This in my eyes is bitter-sweet. First off, to leave the Tonight Show, the pinnacle of success he has worked for all these years and to go to FOX, almost a shame on himself. But the upside would be really a free reign to do as he would please. He would be able to do his 12:30 shtick he used to do, but now at an earlier time, it’s not like FOX is going to censor him at all. He would have the freedom to do his zany, lewd, and dry humor to his heart’s content while not having to worry about living up to the demands of ratings he has had with NBC. FOX has no ‘Tonight Show’, so he has no shoes to fill, nothing to live up to, and FOX would not expect him to beat his competitors in the least. The pressure he has felt from NBC that led to his current predicament would be gone, leaving him to do what he loves without restraint or scrutiny.

It may not be his first choice, but FOX has grown as a network over the years. I remember growing up when FOX was punchline. Everyone ripped on FOX as a crap network with low brow and poor programming, but I don’t think it is seen in that light anymore. FOX is a powerhouse network with huge numbers, some great shows, and a line up that would cater to his brand of humor and creative gags the made his last late night show a huge hit. FOX has two things Conan needs: the primetime numbers and shows to lead in to his show and create an audience, and they would give him plenty of time to cultivate a following again. The best part is, I am betting that the 12:30am audience he had all watch FOX in primetime, so his audience is built in and would love to move fluidly through House, American Idol, 24, Dollhouse, Family Guy, Simpsons, et al., and just keep on watching FOX until Conan was over. FOX has no foot hold in late night, they gave up on that long ago, but Conan would be nothing but a boost to them and he has no downside. Plus, I am betting they would pay his ass big time, plus the NBC money, so he would be fucking rolling in dough, and you know how the Irish like the color green.

Whatever the case, NBC really screwed the pooch on this one. They look foolish, incompetent, and unsteady, as a network. They are letting Conan slip away for the comfort and the ease of keeping Leno around, who seems like he was never ready to leave from the start after pulling the Brett Favre he did with his ‘retirement’. Conan got the worst of all of this despite the work he has put in over the years and the strong numbers he could pull had he been given a fair chance like he deserved. Leno is a tool, plain and simple. He is a watered down crowd pleaser that doesn’t scare old people and still can pull 18-49’s, though I am not one of them. NBC is going with what is easy, comfortable, and safe, keeping Leno around and not waiting for Conan to develop while opening back up the 10pm slot for a drama series of some kind, something NBC is known for. The network got impatient and ended up with a case of buyer’s remorse with Conan, so they gave him enough time to hang himself and a raw deal they knew he would never agree to so they could get Leno back like returning to their wife after a torrid love affair with a redhead. Whatever Conan does and wherever he ends up, he will retain his audience and pull great numbers for anyone who gets who he is as an entertainer, a comedian, and the classiest act to be a part of this late night clusterfuck hell bent on toppling the house that Johnny built.

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