By Paula Hendrickson
When NBC announced they were canceling Jay Leno’s abysmal nightly primetime series and giving him a half-hour show immediately following the late news, bumping the Tonight Show back 30 minutes (literally “tomorrow” in most of the U.S.), it was clear this would not end well.
The irony? With a reported $32.5 million exit deal, another $12 million severance pay for his staff, and wide public support, Conan O’Brien has emerged the winner in what seemed a no-win situation. And while Leno “won” back the Tonight Show, potential viewer backlash may make him wish NBC had never suggested the move.
One reason for O’Brien’s triumph (and I don’t mean the “insult comic dog”), is a statement he released Jan. 12 refusing to accept the time change, saying, “I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction.”
Hyperbole? Perhaps. But O’Brien made a good case.
He wrote: “For 60 years the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn’t the Tonight Show. Also, if I accept this move, I will be knocking the Late Night show, which I inherited from David Letterman and passed on to Jimmy Fallon, out of its long-held time slot. That would hurt the other NBC franchise that I love, and it would be unfair to Jimmy.”
Hmm….back when Leno replaced Johnny Carson, I don’t recall the Tonight Show’s ratings skyrocketing, and he took over when NBC was a top-rated network with strong lead-ins. (Today, NBC’s ratings are often lower than Fox’s—Leno’s primetime show was even trounced in the ratings by basic cable.)
After O’Brien’s letter was published, viewers were intrigued, and his ratings soared. His comedy was loose and biting. Why not go out swinging—what could NBC do, fire him?
Further proof NBC execs are hopelessly out of touch: Jan. 15, Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports, told The New York Times they’re bringing Leno back to late night because of “an astounding failure by Conan.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/15/business/media/15conan.html?ref=media)
Apparently, Ebersol didn’t read the press release NBC sent out that very day, headlined, “CONAN O’BRIEN AND JIMMY FALLON TOP ALL CABLE AND BROADCAST TIME-PERIOD COMPETITION IN 18-49 VIEWERS FOR THE WEEK OF JAN. 4-8.” (The caps are courtesy of NBC. They shouted the news, so they must be excited.) Check out those dates. The ratings win being touted was before the controversy became front-page news.
O’Brien signed an exit deal early Jan. 21. His final Tonight Show will likely be Friday, Jan. 22, opening the way for Leno to reclaim the franchise in March, after the Olympics. “CoCo” fans, don’t despair. By fall, O’Brien will be legally able to return to TV. I hope he lands a show opposite Leno’s Tonight Show so viewers can use their remotes to definitively vote Team Leno or Team CoCo.
Paula Hendrickson is a regular contributor to Emmy magazine and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications, including American Bungalow, Television Week and TVGuide. Send in your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.