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I'm with CoCo by Mike Mitchell

nbc: building a bridge back to the 20th century at conan’s expense

Conan O’Brien got screwed.

Let’s face it: when NBC, currently mired in a ratings abyss, decided to “fix” its primetime programming lineup by booting Jay Leno to 11:35pm (“10:35, Central and Mountain”), moving Conan’s Tonight Show and Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night 30 minutes later, they showed that they have no concept about how to program for the future.

But to do that, it’s good to know about a few things: integrity, tradition, and innovation.

Integrity used to be something that NBC’s programming department showed with precious few wavering moments. They stood behind a strange sitcom, developed by Larry David and starring Jerry Seinfeld, which became one of the signature shows of the 1990s. They developed a Thursday night TV juggernaut around that show, as well as other innovative programs like Cheers, Friends and ER.

And in 1993, they stood behind a geeky comedy writer from Boston who had inherited the gigantic shoes of David Letterman. That man was Conan O’Brien.

Conan’s show misfired on launch. He’d never spent much time in front of a TV camera, having spent the better part of the previous decade writing for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. He was awkward and nervous, and his show seemingly shot every comedy arrow into the air in the hopes that one would hit a target. The ratings sagged, and logic suggested the NBC should fire Conan, hire Greg Kinnear (who was hosting the show following Late Night), and move on.

But Conan managed to eke out a niche, growing the show into his own idiom, and had a successful run. NBC stood behind the strange, ginger-headed comedy writer, and it worked.

Granted, this was at the expense of the original oddball of Late Night, David Letterman. And in an act of almost zero integrity, NBC decided that the man who was best qualified to take over for Johnny Carson at The Tonight Show was not “mainstream enough” – yet they never had the balls to tell that to him directly. Instead, they took the passive-aggressive “we will do anything and everything to keep him” route, saying that Dave was “perfectly suited” to follow Tonight under its new, “safe as milk” host, Jay Leno.

Dave, showing an incredible amount of self confidence and integrity, sought greener pastures where he could advance his career and carry on the legacy of Carson (which was, in its own time, edgy and offbeat – everything that Dave was and Jay wasn’t). And since 1993, CBS has provided a home for him at the Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York City, where The Late Show enjoys a continued run.

Dave, Conan, Jay and others whose shows didn’t enjoy long-term success (Chevy Chase, Pat Sajak, Joan Rivers and, to a lesser extent, Arsenio Hall) carried on a tradition: an hour-plus long comedy/variety show airing after the late local news. It’s a tradition – indeed, an innovation – that NBC pioneered in 1954 with Tonight, when Steve Allen transformed what was Broadway Open House into a staple of late-night TV: a show that featured comedy, celebrity interviews and a variety of musical and theatrical acts. It learned as it ran, evolving from Allen, to Jack Parr, and eventually to Carson, who built the show into a late-night powerhouse. It even survived a wholesale move from NYC to Los Angeles in 1972, and grew even more in popularity.

The Tonight Show continued to thrive under Leno’s helm, and though his first year of hosting was uneven and saw ratings fall once pitted against Letterman, he eventually grew the show into the ratings leader in its time slot. NBC knew that 11:35 was a prime hour for late-night TV dominance.

In 2004, NBC arranged a “peaceful transition of late-night power” when it announced that, effective June 2009, Jay Leno would hand over the reins of Tonight to Conan O’Brien. Everything was set in place, and in 2008, Jimmy Fallon was announced as the successor to Conan at Late Night. And when Leno became increasingly uneasy with the prospect of retirement from TV, NBC arranged a new Jay Leno Show to air weeknights at 10:00pm, before the late local news. Again, it gave the appearance of innovation, even if many (myself included) thought it was a bad idea.

And now, after half a TV season of The Jay Leno Show having performed “as expected,” and seven months of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien having grown into a new evolution of the brand, and ten months of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon allowing its host to learn (a’la Conan) how to command the late-night TV stage, NBC is taking the coward’s way out.

Instead of telling Leno that “it’s been great, but we need to move on,” they want to move his primetime show back to 11:35, in a 30-minute format, pushing Conan’s Tonight and Fallon’s Late Night back by the same 30 minutes. It would have Tonight airing in early morning in the coastal markets.

Wisely, Conan says he’s had enough. In shades of Letterman’s handling of NBC’s disrespect toward him in 1992 and 1993, Conan has decided that the tradition of The Tonight Show, the integrity of both Tonight and Late Night, and the many hours of creative work put into the new show are being disrespected by NBC and its head of programming, Jeff Zucker.

“Like a lot of us, I grew up watching Johnny Carson every night and the chance to one day sit in that chair has meant everything to me. I worked long and hard to get that opportunity, passed up far more lucrative offers, and since 2004 I have spent literally hundreds of hours thinking of ways to extend the franchise long into the future. It was my mistaken belief that, like my predecessor, I would have the benefit of some time and, just as important, some degree of ratings support from the prime-time schedule. Building a lasting audience at 11:30 is impossible without both.” – Conan O’Brien

Zucker kowtowed to the local NBC affiliates, who found the flagging ratings of Leno (he often finished last against reruns of shows like CSI: Miami and Numb3rs) hurting their news viewership, which meant fewer advertising dollars. Many of these affiliates warned NBC about putting Leno on in primetime, and some (namely NBC’s Boston affiliate, oddly the hometown of both Leno and O’Brien) threatened to not broadcast Leno’s new show.

(In hindsight, they should’ve trusted their instincts, these local affiliates.)

I wholeheartedly agree with this. Rather than innovating, NBC is standing by the familiar at the expense of innovation. As David Carr wrote in a scathing commentary in his New York Times business column, the blame for this backward, regressive move lies entirely at Zucker’s feet:

“[I]t was Mr. Zucker who decided to fix the network’s problems in prime time by putting late night franchises in play and it was, in the end, Mr. Zucker who decided that the solution to bailing out a leaky boat was to blow more holes in the bottom.”

To use a phrase that was popular in the 2000 presidential election, NBC is building a bridge back to the 20th century.

Conan, you have left the ball squarely in NBC’s – primarily Zucker’s – court. Your statement showed a level of class and maturity that NBC and Jay Leno would be hard pressed to match. And I hope you’re given a chance to play ball, preferably at 11:35, not necessarily at NBC.

All I can say is: I hope that NBC continues to wallow in the ratings cellar (though I wish well of Heroes, Chuck, 30 Rock and The Office – as well as Jimmy Fallon, even though I’m not a big fan of his show). And I doubt I’ll ever watch anything with Jay Leno ever again.

fallen icons

This was going to be a post about my most recent cycling adventures, but that will have to wait.

This week has seen the deaths of three pop culture icons who resonated in my life: Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson, as well as the news that Walter Cronkite is likely to pass away in the next few weeks.

Today reminds me of my 17th birthday, back in 1990, when both Sammy Davis, Jr., and Jim Henson died within hours of each other: a day when things are just so sad that it’s tough to cobble together the words to describe the disturbance in personal space-time.

Ed McMahon was the ultimate sidekick. As the foil to Johnny Carson, McMahon often got the last laugh in Johnny’s bits – a sure sign of respect, as many comedians are hesitant to have somebody else share the spoils of their trade. Ed’s cadence and style were the model for those to follow: Paul Shaffer and Andy Richter owe a lot to Ed’s inimitable body of work, and Ed’s death leaves only Doc Severinsen to carry the mantel of NBC’s standard bearer of late-night variety shows.

I used to sneak in a viewing of The Tonight Show in my youth, and my parents often had it on and I could hear Johnny and Ed’s banter through my bedroom door. My grandmother loved Tonight (though she was most enamored of Joan Rivers’ guest hosting appearances), and I’d watch the show there whenever I stayed at her place.

Ed: your curtain call is now – enjoy it!

Farrah Fawcett was the sexy angel. And no, I didn’t have a copy of the poster on my wall, but I was all too familiar with it (was the uniform on Baywatch modeled after that shot? Oh yes, I’m quite sure of it.). Farrah rose above the fluffy appearance, though, and was a strong woman. Sure, her appearance on David Letterman’s show rose suspicions about her health and/or sanity, but time and again she rose above it with class.

And her battle against cancer was a model of courage. She shared her pain, grief, anger and perseverance in a very public forum. Her life’s love, Ryan O’Neil, was there every step of the way during her battle and showed every bit of strength to keep up with the ever-powerful Farrah. And the final visit of their son, Redman, is tough to watch – even tougher so, in hindsight.

Farrah: Charlie’s latest mission is a doozy.

And Michael – well, there’s a lot to say, both good and bad.

Thriller was one of the first albums I ever bought, if not the first, with my own money. I listened to that tape until it had stretched beyond playability. I owned a “Thriller” jacket. I learned the moonwalk. I even briefly switched to Pepsi after the pyrotechnics incident out of solidarity – yes, I was a fan.

But most of all, I loved the magic of his music. Off The Wall and Thriller are wall-to-wall sonic tapestries that are solid from the first beat to the last. The infectious (if repetitive) bassline of “Billie Jean,” or the Van Halen guitar solo in “Beat It,” or the tour de force of “Thriller,” or the dance-’til-you-drop beat of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” – all are model pop songs. Sure, his star faded from there, but there were still occasional glimpses of brilliance, even as his personal life became increasingly erratic and eccentric.

My fandom didn’t last too long, however. The first blow was when he outbid Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono for the ownership of Northern Songs, which meant that The Beatles’ song catalog was suddenly open to the highest bidder for use in ad campaigns (my Beatles fandom far outweighs that of MJ, and always has). And the rumors and allegations of child molestation were tough to disbelieve, given that MJ always seemed a bit too eager to be around children.

MJ’s childhood was nothing that I’d wish upon anybody, but I also think that his adulthood was equally tragic. His constant battle to become somebody else – the pseudo-castrati voice, the horrendous plastic surgeries, the shift in skin coloration – pointed to a never-fulfilled need to treat deep psychological and emotional wounds. But the insular world of superstardom likely blinded him to this necessity, to his own detriment.

He tried to seek solace in isolation, and was about to stage a massive comeback-cum-farewell concert series in London. And now he is no more.

But we have the music, that glorious music.

Michael: may you finally find peace.

a rock giant, a chanteuse, and one of the best

Friday the 13th was a day of highs and lows. Let me start with the highs (and a quip or two).

Last night, sprite and I went to see Robert Plant (the rock giant) and Alison Krauss (the chanteuse) perform a brilliant show at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Their album, Raising Sand, was my favorite of last year, and they didn’t disappoint. Backed by T. Bone Burnett’s skilled band, Plant’s howl and growl were better than they’ve been in years, and Krauss’ crystaline voice showed its full, powerful, effortless range throughout the show. They played every song from Raising Sand, as well as a handful of Krauss’ solo songs, a couple of Burnett’s songs from his new album, a Plant solo song, and two songs from the Led Zeppelin catalog (“When The Levee Breaks” and “The Battle of Evermore”).

Both Plant and Krauss were clear in their admiration of the other, each one allowing the other to shine with a vocal flourish here and there, their voices intertwining in ways that sent chills up my spine.

The problem with the show, however, was that a majority of the crowd showed up expecting a rocking, Led Zeppelin style show. Once they discovered that the show was a bluegrass-flavored, folksy blues romp, they would talk.

And drink.

And talk and drink some more, their collective volume rising as the inebriation level grew. Some even called for Krauss to “get off the fucking stage.” Drunken louts, jerks, assholes – these folks fit the bill, and how.

The best part about that, though, was that Krauss’ voice silenced the critics during her second solo set, where the crowd quickly fell into a silent awe. She showed ’em! But they were still a crowd that just didn’t get it – not one bit.

As I left the pavilion, I came to a bit of a startling, chilling realization: I’m falling into the target audience for the very PBS music shows I tend to ridicule. I want the live music, the experience that only musicians on a stage, embracing their craft, can do – only without the drunken, stoned louts in the audience, who tend to make themselves the center of attention. To rephrase something I Twittered last night:

“If you’re going to spend $320 on a musical experience [the cost of 8 GA tickets], then you might as well stay home, buy some good booze, spin up a Zep album, and talk as loud as you want….”

Seriously – it would be no loss for the louts, and would improve my experience greatly.

But the majority of the crowd were the children of the Zeppelin age: folks in their 50s and 60s, who probably made out in the back seat of the car to “Stairway To Heaven” or “Thank You,” and were trying to re-grasp their long-lost youth (and were grousing at the fact that Plant still has all of his trademark mane of golden curls). I don’t mind that they are at the concert at all; I simply want them to shut up and listen!

Such is the price I pay for being a fan of all kinds of music: I get both the wheat and the chaff.

. . . . .

On another note, I also mourn the loss of Tim Russert. He was the best political reporter of the past 20 years, almost always fair, always challenging his interviewees to answer good, substantial questions. The tributes to him are uniformly positive from all political sides – not an easy feat to achieve. I shed tears for him and his family, and the millions of Americans who have lost one of the best sources for straight answers in the often spin-laden minefield of politics.

too damn early

Saw my first Christmas-themed advert on TV this morning – from Hallmark, of course.

It scared the pants off of me.

Please, it’s too early to market for the holiday season. Sure, it’s November (and welcome to it), but it’s just too damn early.

tuesday quick quips

Some things that have crossed my mind today:

  • WAMU’s decision to relegate their bluegrass programming to the HD range is flat-out stupid. The powers-that-be at WAMU continue to prove that they know how to implode a local radio station, creating more of the same (political talk radio and over-syndicated NPR content) rather than provide a format that’s unique. If anybody from the “home of Kojo” is reading this: take a long, hard look at WFUV, KRCL or WXPN to see how independent public radio is done. Seriously: we don’t need rehash of stuff that every other NPR affiliate is doing.
  • The first public beta release of Eudora’s new mail client, code named “Penelope”, is a major letdown. Let me summarize: it’s essentially Thunderbird with Eudora’s icons and sounds. If I were a Eudora user, I’d be miffed that we’ve waited all this time for a version of Thunderbird with new curtains. Where are the features of the old program that made it a standout? Are they in some internal build that will see the light of day in 2012? Disappointing, Mr. Dorner and open-source dev crowd – simply disappointing.
  • It was refreshing to hear a Republican consultant on this past Sunday’s Meet The Press admit that Fox News is the official media outlet for the GOP. Finally: a theocon who says something that isn’t mealy-mouthed and half (if that) true!
  • I’m still not sold on any of the current crop of presidential candidates. However, there are some who continue to inch their way down in favor, including Bill Richardson (miffing the question on whether being gay is a choice or genetic, and doing an “I don’t know” on the $50 billion Iraq funding bill).

Now, off to a ball game….

again, olbermann is spot-on

Keith Olbermann is a rare entity in journalism these days: a man who knows no fear, and who is willing to speak things that the corporate shills who run the major media outlets dare not say for fear of offending the Bush propaganda machine.

And last night, as he has many times before, Olbermann said what needed to be said: rather than choose a scapegoat for his own failures in foreign policy, war and statecraft, Mr. Bush should:

Go to Baghdad now and fulfill, finally, your military service obligations…. Go there and fight, your war…yourself.

It’s a great piece – read and see the whole thing at Crooks & Liars.

I’m very glad that the powers-that-be at NBC Universal are giving Olbermann a platform with which he can bring us his commentary, reporting and interviews.

talkin’ pepper

Sgt. Pepper, that is. Check out my latest post over at Selective Service.

Anything else to report? Not really. Did a lot of homework tonight.

Glad to see that MSNBC canned Imus. Besides: how exciting is it to watch a radio show? There’s a reason the epithet “a face made for radio” exists, and Don Imus is a classic example.

And the new question to ponder: do I head up to New Jersey for Live Earth? It would’ve been much easier here in DC.

Just another Wednesday….

who’s the hoya connection….

….at Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip?

I mean, there’s a Wisconsin Ave GUTS sign in one of the dressing room sets on the show! There’s gotta be a connection.

Anyone?

r.i.p. molly

Her struggle is over – may she rest in peace, and may her writing inspire folks to keep up the good fight.

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