Thursday, January 14, 2010

Conan and Leno

There's been a lot of brouhaha over the mess at NBC--the Conan-Leno debacle that should (if there was any sense at NBC) cost network head Jeffrey Zucker his job. To recap: Conan O'Brien, the host of the 12:35AM Late Night show since 1993, was considering leaving the network, so Zucker offered him the plum 11:35 PM Tonight Show slot (which Jay Leno had held since 1992). To placate Leno, Zucker offered him a 10PM spot for his own show. Brilliant plan, right?

It turned into lose-lose--Conan's ratings at the 11:35 slot were lower than Leno's had been, and Leno's ratings at the 10PM slot were so bad they were being beaten by reruns of CSI. This not only lost the network money, but angered the local affiliates who needed something strong at 10 to lead into their 11PM local news. Complete and total FAIL.

I understand the spot Zucker was in--Conan has a solid following and has been acing at his Late Night spot, and does well among younger viewers. It would make sense for NBC to keep him, grooming him for the Tonight Show. But at the same time, Leno has been dominating the ratings at the Tonight Show for fifteen years. The problem was that in trying to keep both, NBC ended up angering both of them and losing plenty of money and ratings in the process.

Then, NBC offered up a "split the baby" solution--give Leno back the 11:35 slot, and move Conan up to 12 midnight and bump Jimmy Fallon (who took Conan's old spot at 12:35AM) to 1AM. This is such a bad idea it's not worth considering. It makes Leno an usurper, it moves Conan and Fallon both back by a half hour (losing audience share, as fewer people will be awake) and demonstrates a move out of weakness and not strength. Conan this week smartly (and publicly) rejected this idea, claiming that it would ruin the Tonight Show and Late Night franchises. Either he keeps Tonight Show at 11:35, or he leaves NBC.

My own personal bias is that I never found Leno particularly funny, even though he seems like a nice guy. NBC probably could have found some sort of medium for him--maybe a celebrity interview show only, or something car-related. Perhaps offer him a deal for a series of periodic specials--the sort of exposure that could help his nightclub act. Maybe offer him a sitcom deal, or some reality show. I've been a fan of Conan for a long time, and the guy's humor--while too wacky for some viewers--is nothing short of smart and brilliant. If NBC had the vision to promote his show and give him time to find his rhythm at the 11:35 slot, he could have dominated the ratings. As the now-younger audience ages, his appeal would only expand over time. (Remember, it took even Leno a couple years to beat his rivals at that slot--NBC could at least remember enough from its own past to show some patience)

How will this end? I know how I'd LIKE it to end--Leno and Conan both bolting NBC since they both got screwed in the deal. There are plenty of other networks (cable and broadcast) and Fox has indicated interest in Conan. I think it's a better fit for him anyway--generally Fox viewers are younger, and that network has taken many more risks over the years compared with its more conservative rivals (for example, the Simpsons--a prime time cartoon for the first time since Flintstones, and that led to a host of prime time cartoons on all networks). Fox does need a late night show and Conan's style would work great there.

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