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April 17, 2014

Conan O'Brien Gets the Shaft

by Scott Harris, posted Jan 8th 2010 12:26PM
When NBC announced in September of 2004 that they had signed 'Late Night' host Conan O'Brien to a deal that would see him take over 'The Tonight Show' from Jay Leno, O'Brien appeared to be on top of the world. After yesterday's round of rumors, though, it now appears that he's edging closer to the end of the world.

According to multiple reports, it appears that NBC has decided return Leno to the key 11:30 time slot. This follows a year of controversy and turmoil for the network, which first angered Leno by yanking him from 'The Tonight Show' despite being on top of the ratings and then exacerbated the situation by putting him on nightly in the 10 p.m. slot. That decision has led to a massive hemorrhaging of ratings for the network and affiliates who rely on a strong lead in to their lucrative local news broadcasts.When NBC announced in September 2004 that they had signed 'Late Night' host Conan O'Brien to eventually take over 'The Tonight Show' from Jay Leno, O'Brien appeared to be on top of the world. After yesterday's round of rumors, though, it now appears that he's edging closer to the end of the world instead.

According to multiple reports, it appears that NBC has decided return Leno to the key 11:30 time slot. This follows a year of controversy and turmoil for the network, which first angered Leno by yanking him from 'The Tonight Show' despite being on top of the ratings, then horrified almost the entire TV industry by putting him on nightly in the 10PM slot. That decision led to a massive hemorrhaging of ratings, which hurt affiliates who rely on a strong lead-in to their lucrative local news broadcasts.

Now NBC has apparently decided to give up on the entire experiment and instead try to turn back the clock. Just last year, after all, they owned the number one shows at both 11:30 and 12:30 and, in Leno and O'Brien, had the two hottest stars on the late night scene. Now, thanks to executive bungling, they have no ratings, few sponsors and have not only damaged the 'Tonight Show' brand possibly permanently but have also angered and alienated both hosts.

"So far, nobody said anything to me, but ... you know, if we did get canceled, it would give us some time to maybe do some traveling," Leno said in his 'Jay Leno Show' monologue last night. "In fact, I understand FOX is beautiful this time of year." He added, "It's always been my experience NBC only cancels you when you're in first place, so we're fine."

While Leno is understandably miffed at being removed from 'The Tonight Show' while still atop the ratings only to become a network fall guy, it's O'Brien that is now drawing the short end of the stick. Just five years ago he was considered such a hot property that the network was willing to turn over the reins of one of television's longest running and most prestigious shows in order to retain his services. Now it appears as though that offer was just smoke and mirrors.

O'Brien's efforts on 'The Tonight Show' have been hampered at every turn. Thanks to the network's decision to replace their dramatic programming with the 'Leno' experiment, he never truly got a fresh start; not only was Leno still his lead-in, exactly as before, but Leno's expanded presence at the network (including ubiquitous advertising campaigns that far surpassed promotion of O'Brien's 'Tonight Show') overshadowed his debut.


In addition, the poor ratings by 'Leno,' which as noted led to a massive drop-off in local news numbers, also meant that 'The Tonight Show' received correspondingly less lead-in support as well, damaging chances to stay competitive with the resurgent 'Late Show with David Letterman.' And while O'Brien similarly struggled when he replaced Letterman on 'The Late Show,' in that case he was given time to grow into the role, eventually becoming an icon in his own right. But now it appears as though that opportunity will be denied him after just a few short months on the job.

NBC's decision not to give O'Brien that time is unfortunate considering what the carrot-topped comedian has accomplished already in his unlikely career. Getting his start at Harvard's National Lampoon, O'Brien parlayed that into a gig writing for 'Saturday Night Live.' From there he moved on to help turn 'The Simpsons' into a television classic before unexpectedly being tapped as 'Late Night' host when, ironically, Letterman was passed over by NBC to host 'The Tonight Show' in favor of Leno.

While O'Brien's brand of off-beat humor has never been viewed as the most natural fit for 11:30, the host's track record suggests that, given a chance to adapt, he usually develops a winning formula. That was certainly the case on 'Late Night,' which O'Brien rescued for NBC and which, over 16 years on the show, he turned from a cult hit to a mainstream sensation. That just makes his current treatment by the network even more troubling.

Just how the return of Leno to 11:30 will play out is still up in the air -- most rumors now point to Leno getting a new half hour show, with 'The Tonight Show' pushed back to 12:05 -- but the result appears to be a vote of confidence for Leno, despite his poor ratings, and a commensurate snubbing of O'Brien. And while some have speculated that O'Brien may jump ship to another network if his contract is broken, that may not be an option; some insiders suggest that O'Brien's contract merely states that he will host 'The Tonight Show' for two years, with no specific mention of its time slot. And others note that competing networks like Fox may no longer be interested in joining the late night sweepstakes. If that is the case, then O'Brien may have no choice but to allow himself to be marginalized and shuffled back into the wee hours.

When he signed the deal, O'Brien no doubt thought he was realizing his life's dream -- to host the legendary 'Tonight Show.' Now, if these rumors are true, it appears as though network mismanagement has turned that dream into a nightmare, reduced 'The Tonight Show' name to simply a convenient contractually-stipulated moniker and publicly embarrassed O'Brien on the biggest stage possible. "We remain committed to keeping Conan O'Brien on NBC," the network claimed in a statement. "He is a valued part of our late-night line-up, as he has been for more than 16 years and is one of the most respected entertainers on television."

The question now is: respected by who?

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