Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Battle For the Ages

It has happened.  Finally, a showdown between the baby boomers and Generation X.  To my delight, it is playing out on the front pages of e-Newspapers, Twitter, and blogs throughout the world.

Corporate vs. artistic.  The establishment vs. the upstart.  The slightly less funny vs. the sometimes just bizarre.

Conan vs. Jay.

Some history: in 2003, fearing the loss of a popular late-night personality, NBC offered Conan O'Brien a guaranteed hosting slot for The Tonight Show, beginning in six years, 2009.  According to reports at the time, Jay Leno was not consulted.  He made some kind-of-bitter-sounding jokes at the time about being told about his retirement on the front pages of Variety.

(Disclosure: I loathe Jay Leno.  I don't think he's funny.  I've never really forgiven him OR NBC for the Leno vs. Letterman debacle in the 1990's.  I like Conan most of the time, but I'm a fan of "alternative comedy," in which just about anything is considered funny.)

NBC, at the time, apparently decided the future of their late-night lineup was Conan, so they were willing to discard Leno in his favor.  Early in 2008 it was announced that SNL comedian Jimmy Fallon (who, although a breakout star on SNL, has failed to establish himself in films or television) would take over Conan's former late-night spot.  All appeared to be moving forward as planned.

Then, someone at NBC, displaying a startling amount of common sense, says, "Hey, wait.  Leno is number one in his time slot, has been for a while, why are we kicking him out again?"  The suits all nodded.  Then the guy said, "And, if we kick him off the network now, some other network is sure to snatch him up."  The suits all agreed, then sent the guy back to the mail room so the real brains could work out something that would keep "everyone happy."

Their brilliant solution debuted this past fall: Jay Leno gets a one-hour late-night format show in prime time, Conan takes over The Tonight Show name and time slot.  Great.  Everyone's happy, right?  Especially the suits at NBC, who now realize that a talk show is way less expensive than traditional prime-time programming.

Except Leno's new show is terrible.  Awful.  Nigh on unwatchable.  Ratings in the 10/9 hour plummet even further for an already troubled NBC, which leads to local affiliate news shows at 11/10 suffering, which means The Tonight Show, traditionally anchored by the prime time/local news block, is also rated very, very low.

Unfortunately, the guy from the mail room is now an executive at Fox, so the suits are on their own.

Clearly, they figure, it isn't that Leno stinks.  No, it can't be that!  It must be the time slot.  But if they let Leno go, SOMEONE ELSE MIGHT GET HIM.  And they can't have that.  No, no.

Solution proposed: Jay Leno will now get a half-hour "Jay Leno" show at 10:35/11:35, followed by The Tonight Show at 12:05/11:05.  (Jimmy Fallon gets what he gets and should be happy to get it, apparently.)

Today, Conan O'Brien justified my love by issuing a response.  He didn't speak through a lawyer or publicist, he issed the statement himself, and what he said should go down in history as a prime example of what someone who is upset, but ultimately too gracious and self-respecting to be vindictive, does to say no:


People of Earth:
In the last few days, I've been getting a lot of sympathy calls, and I want to start by making it clear that no one should waste a second feeling sorry for me.  For 17 years, I've been getting paid to do what I love most and, in a world with real problems, I've been absurdly lucky.  That said, I've been suddenly put in a very public predicament and my bosses are demanding an immediate decision.
Six years ago, I signed a contract with NBC to take over The Tonight Show in June of 2009.  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.
But sadly, we were never given that chance. After only seven months, with my Tonight Show in its infancy, NBC has decided to react to their terrible difficulties in prime-time by making a change in their long-established late night schedule.
Last Thursday, NBC executives told me they intended to move the Tonight Show to 12:05 to accommodate the Jay Leno Show at 11:35.  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.
So it has come to this: I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it.  My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The Tonight Show. But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction.  Some people will make the argument that with DVRs and the Internet a time slot doesn't matter.  But with the Tonight Show, I believe nothing could matter more.
There has been speculation about my going to another network but, to set the record straight, I currently have no other offer and honestly have no idea what happens next.  My hope is that NBC and I can resolve this quickly so that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of, for a company that values our work.
Have a great day and, for the record, I am truly sorry about my hair; it's always been that way.

How could I not love this man?  Sticking to his guns with style and grace, basically saying, "I know it's a great job, but if you don't let me do the job you hired me to do, I won't do it at all."
Even more impressive when you factor in Conan's reportedly $15 million annual salary.  While NBC would probably have to negotiate a payout to get Conan out, it won't be anything near what he would have made just saying yes and going forward.  Conan's not in it for the money; he clearly understands that he's got more than enough of that.
If only I could stay up past 9:00 p.m., I'd be his biggest fan.

P.S. I think Dave may be on to something here:


Machen family said...

I completely agree with you. This is a disaster and Jay Leno is a putz. He can't deliver a joke. That letter from Conan thrilled me, he's a good guy and I'm not worried about his future, he's going to make it. But I will miss his string dance. The few times I was able to watch Jimmy Fallon I have really enjoyed his humor. In the end it just makes NBC and Jay Leno look like a bunch of thugs.

Kristina P. said...

Conan is one classy guy.

I saw his show in NYC in 2000. I can't believe it's been 10 years! HILARIOUS.

And like you, Leno hasn't been funny since, well, never. I will say, one thing that makes me happy about this is that now we can get actual programming back, rather than stupid Leno every night.

I hope they figure it out. It's all been so stupid. Leno is doing the Tonight Show, just an hour earlier now.

Mayhem and Moxie said...

Do I dare step up to the plate and say that I am a Jay Leno fan? Can we still be friends after my doing so, Deb? Even in the face of adversity, I will persevere!

I must admit that I have never been a Conan fan. However, after reading this post, I will now reconsider my Conan bashing. Although I do not think he is incredibly funny, you have to give credit where credit is due. That was one hell of a letter that he wrote.

Thanks for sharing this.


Barbaloot said...

I've never watched either of them---but Jay has always irritated me, and I have a thing fo red-heads so I will always be on Conan's side. Especially now considering his classy letter---and because of the hilarious hair comment at the end. How can you not love that?