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CBS play to get Conan O'Brien to host the Tonys looks better on paper

March 29, 2010 |  8:58 am

Conan O'Brien Deadline Hollywood had a pretty juicy story over the weekend that CBS had reached out to Conan O'Brien to see if he'd be game for hosting the Tony Awards in June.

It looks like it is not going to happen. It is unclear whether O'Brien would be in violation of his lucrative exit package from NBC, where he was bounced out as host of its "Tonight Show," if he hosted the awards show. Some say he would, others say he wouldn't. Either way, the odds of him getting the gig are long.

Although CBS certainly would generate a lot of attention for having O'Brien host the show, the thinking seems shortsighted. Last year's ratings were actually up a little thanks to the fine job by Neil Patrick Harris. Now, maybe NPH has awards-show fatigue, but what about Craig Ferguson? The CBS host has become a critics darling over the last few years, and his numbers have been solid.

There is no rule that says a network has to use its own personality to host an awards show, but generally speaking, that is what they do. It's a big platform so why not promote one of your own? If not, then get someone neutral who will bring in big numbers as well, such as Oprah Winfrey. Letterman, by the way, would likely pass on such an offer.

If CBS had landed O'Brien, would the attention have been worth the risk of potentially alienating Ferguson or anyone else with the network who might have wanted the gig or would benefit from it? Seems a long way to go just to tweak NBC.

Furthermore, once O'Brien gets through his dozen or so jokes ripping NBC, would viewers stick around? Would the folks behind the Tony Awards really want their event to play second fiddle to a bunch of inside-baseball jokes about late-night TV? There is a good chance that, by June, O'Brien will have a new late-night home, which means CBS would end up giving future competitor a free advertisement.

Yes, it would have been a sexy headline and maybe even a bump in the ratings, and that's the name of the game. But in the long run, CBS is probably better off without O'Brien hosting. If it's all about ratings, CBS should get its biggest sitcom star -- Charlie Sheen -- to host. Now that would get people to watch.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Conan O'Brien. Credit: Evan Agostini / Associated Press