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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.

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