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August 1, 2014

Should Conan O'Brien Leave Sinking Ship NBC?

by Gary Susman, posted Nov 23rd 2009 4:00PM
Back in 2004, when NBC promised Conan O'Brien that he'd get to host 'The Tonight Show' in five years, the gig looked like a career-crowning achievement. Today, however, it looks more like an albatross.

O'Brien has the dubious honor of hosting the flagship late-night program on NBC at a time when the network is mired in fourth place, when his own ratings have plummeted, when the desperate cheapness of the Jay-Leno-at-10PM experiment seems to be dragging down both prime time and late-night, and when what's left of the proud Peacock network is about to be sold to a cable service provider.

At least Conan's not the captain of this Titanic; he's more like one of the fiddlers desperately sawing away at "Nearer My God to Thee" as the vessel sinks. But then, he has no obligation to go down with the boat. Maybe, as San Francisco Chronicle TV columnist Tim Goodman suggests, it's time for O'Brien to jump ship.

As Goodman sees it, NBC's death spiral will only get worse, thanks in part to the ripple effect of moving Leno to 10PM. If, as expected, the Comcast purchase of the network goes through, the man in charge of NBC will still be Jeff Zucker, the exec whose decisions (including the Leno gambit) have been widely blamed for NBC's ratings woes over the past five years. Leno, however, has expressed a willingness to return to his old slot at 11:30 if his NBC bosses ask him to. And perhaps they would, just to stop the bleeding in prime time. Sure, they'd have to buy Conan out of his contract, but that might be cheaper than allowing the current slide to continue, Goodman writes.

Why should Conan sit idly by and wait for this scenario to play out when he could just quit? As Goodman argues, Fox or ABC would surely snap him up and offer him big money to host a late-night show, and they'd have stronger lead-in shows to give him the ratings support he needs.

One point Goodman doesn't address: a move like this could also recharge O'Brien's creative batteries. Even some die-hard Conan fans think he's less funny at 11:30 in Los Angeles than he was at 12:30 in New York. He's had to tone down the more risqué comedy bits that played well to the wee-hours crowd, and he often seems nervous and manic as he tries to live up to the august 'Tonight Show' legacies of Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Leno. Plus, he seems miserable at having to interview L.A. fame junkies like Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt (see video clip below).

Conan O'Brien interviews Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt

So, a departure from NBC might be just what O'Brien needs. Unless, of course, NBC gets new and creative leadership that also allows him to save his job; maybe, as Conan suggested last month (see video clip below), NBC should sell itself not to Comcast but to Jay-Z.

Conan O'Brien: Please Buy NBC


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