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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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After the NBC late-night bloodbath: What is Conan O'Brien's future?

I've been following the NBC late-night meltdown just like everyone else, watching all the jokes about it on TV--Jimmy Kimmel's sharp-elbowed appearance on Jay Leno being the highlight--along with the kibitzing from network elders, ranging from Fred Silverman--who heaped blame on NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker--to NBC sports guru Dick Ebersol, who trashed Conan O'Brien, calling him "chicken-hearted and gutless" for taking a few jabs at Leno. Even if it isn't absolutely official, it looks like Conan is finally a free man, getting a big payoff while Leno gets to return (after the Winter Olympics) to his old 11:35 p.m. time slot.


(And speaking of big payoffs, I can only wonder how many office pools have sprouted up in the past few weeks, with over and under bets on how long Zucker, who got everyone into this fine mess in the first place, keeps his job after the Comcast takeover is completed.)

But what about Conan? He clearly emerges with a big reservoir of sympathy as the poor guy (yes, the extremely highly paid poor guy) who got the shaft, losing his show after barely a couple of months on the job. But as some of my TV-steeped colleagues have shrewdly pointed out, where can he possibly go to replicate the kind of late-night talk show he's been doing for years? ABC has already said it's not interested in hiring him. HBO isn't prepared to get into the late-night talk show racket. And Fox, the network that normally would be most aggressive in taking advantage of a competitor's misfortune, has a lot of issues to overcome, starting with a huge lack of enthusiasm from its affiliates--who see a Conan show as a losing game--as well as the financial complications of footing the hefty bill for hiring O'Brien along with settling out the costly contracts for reruns on Fox's TV stations.

This creates quite a bind for Conan's team of WME talent agent advisers. They've sprung him from NBC, getting a big payoff, but where does he go from here? With the late-night landscape already crammed with talk shows, O'Brien (to use an analogy from his favorite sport) is like the slugging first baseman who becomes a free agent in a year where there are already loads of great first basemen on the market. 

Whatever he does, he's going to have to take a serious pay cut. Since that's a given, I'd like to see him go to where his audience already is instead of asking them to find him on an unfamiliar outlet. It's no secret that Conan's audience is at least a decade younger than Leno or Letterman's audience. We also know that the younger the TV viewer, the more likely they are to be watching cable TV, not the cobwebby programming available on network TV.

So if I were Conan, since I have to take a pay cut anyway, I'd be focusing on cable. And I'd also want to go somewhere where I had a decent lead-in for my show, not to mention a lead-in that might help me hang on to the younger audience that has been deserting TV in droves. Get my drift? If there were ever a perfect setup for O'Brien, it would be Comedy Central, which already has a powerhouse double bill of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Conan would be a great fit following their shows, inheriting a small (by network standards) but intensely loyal audience of viewers primed for his droll, irony-filled comedy routines.

The money wouldn't be the same, but I think it would be a liberating, low-pressure experience for O'Brien, who looks like he could use a break from the high-stakes ratings death match of network late-night TV. Instead of being told to tone down his act and pretend to be an old fogy, as NBC was asking him to do on "The Tonight Show," he could cut loose and get back to his roots, when he was was the most inventive, loose-limbed funnyman on TV. It's time to let Conan be Conan again. 

Photo: Conan O'Brien. Photo credit: Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images

Comments () | Archives (79)

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It would be sad to see Conan go to one of the cable networks. After being at the top of the mountain (Even despite its poor ratings), the Tonight Show, it will undoubtedly be underwhelming for Conan to be second fiddle to Colbert and Stewart.

I think network TV is where Conan belongs and in my eyes this is a terrific opportunity for Fox to make a splash onto the late night scene. Especially if they could get him on in less than a year.

I'm certain Conan's ratings would be stellar after all of this publicity. It seems that he's spawned a pretty formidable fan base through all of this.

great analysis. Coco is by far the funniest and most tuned-in of Letterman-Leno-O'Brien. The big losers will be the idiots at NBC and that bloated has been, Leno, who many people won't watch after this debacle. For my money, I'd like to see Coco take the format somewhere else, or give up on being another stop on the late night tour and do something original. Even the Daily Show and Colbert have become just another spot on the late night circuit - anybody else sick of Ringo Starr yet?

I'm tired of this story. There are some bottom lines here that few admit and none write.
1. From a ratings standpoint Conan flopped. That is THE reason for all of this. HE FLOPPED. I don't care if he's "brilliant" by some people's standards. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, "If people don't want to watch Conan O"Brien, you can't stop 'em."
2. Fifteen years from now his "fans" will dominate the viewing audience that stays awake to watch the Tonight Show then goes to sleep.
3. By the time 15 years passes that core group will want a less abrasive humor than he provides.... so...
4. The only place for Conan for the next decade or so is late late night TV. At 11:30pm he'd get creamed on network, cable, satellite, even pony express TV.
5. In 15 yrs I'll be 75 and hope to watch the Tonight Show with Jay LENO beginning at 6:30PM earky enough to not be past my 8pm bedtime but late enough so I can make the "early bird specila" discount at the deli and still be back in time to watch TV

NBC execs are making a tremendously poor long term decision. From the sounds of how much they claim to be losing during the Olympics, why would we expect any better if they can't even get a huge broadcasting opportunity like that right?

Leno is bland and plain horrible. Repeating the punchline 4 times after delivery is not funny - and thats all he's got besides rebroadcasting clips from the internet and picking on morons on the street. Conan is naturally funny, appeals to the generation of TV viewers they should be concentrating on - and is getting a flat out raw deal. Oh, he's getting paid to exit I'm sure, but I hope he doesn't disappear like Dave Chappelle did. I know there are many other reasons beyond network interference and disagreements for Dave, but I guess my point is that we are missing out on some good, raw comedy. On the bright side, with George Lopez getting a late night show of sorts, maybe cable is the right place for Conando to live.

Conan bashers -- what is your point? You are dull, humorless people who want affable wonderbread to fall asleep to. Just because you can't see past the first layer of Conan's humor doesn't mean the rest of us deserve to go without him.

Look, your man had his time. Now he's showing just how shameless he is by retaking the Tonight Show after signing a retirement contract. Nobody but Jay would stoop so low. It doesn't matter if this mess is mostly NBC's fault -- chin is playing right along with 'em.

And before you spout off about ratings... Jay is a Big Mac. I don't care how many people buy Big Macs, they're still horribly unhealthy.

I watched more 'late night' talk show when Jay went to 10PM. There's absolutely no reason to watch local TV-all ambulance chaser stories and I can get real sports news on the web, so why stay up to watch Jay/Conan/Dave at 11:30...they all have the same formats and same guests pimping movies. Boring!

I do like Jay, he's more down to earth and his humor works to wrap up the day for most of us working stiffs who just want a bit of entertainment. Lettermann is
so out of it...same routine for twenty years and his gap-tooth grin is we now learn that he has always been a dirty old man. Conan's humor seems stuck in his Simpson days. Juvenile and huckster haha. Not something anyone wants to watch night after night.

I don't know why everyone is blaming Leno. It's a business....about ratings. If you don't do your job, you're fired or asked to take another job. Conan had the option to keep his hefty paycheck and change time slots. Big deal---not! NBC might change the line-up again in another year ...... he should have gone for the deal. The ratings and the line-up may be suffering from the economy and the plethora of late night talk shows. He seems like a spoiled brat.


Conan "emphatically rejected" moving The Tonight Show to midnight, citing its 56+ year legacy. Whatever show he'd be doing on CC would be unencumbered by such history.

I agree with the comments of Jeremy Karston at2:42 pm on 1/18.

I had predicted that Conan would be a DISASTER if he didn't make major changes and have substantive humor, and I gave him a DETAILED ANALYSIS beginning 8 months ago and covering 30 WEB PAGES on how to avoid failure. My analysis is here:

Blaming Conan's failure on a poor lead-in audience from Leno's show is a shamelessly lame excuse. People who like Conan have enough brains to change the channel. Conan was averaging HALF of Leno's audience, and was even beaten by Letterman in his so-called young demographic.

Conan's failure was entirely due to his intellectual laziness, and his mindless absurdist attempt at humor. Only hopeless and despairing individuals enjoy that, just as only disturbed people really enjoy hip-hop and rap felons shouting onstage about ho's, shooting cops, and raping their mothers.

Daily Show at 11, then over to Letterman at 11:30, then back to Comedy Central and Conan from 12 on. That will work for me, unless Letterman has someone like Steve Martin or, uh... maybe Conan O'Brien as a guest! As for Leno - this debacle has shown me what a pathetic, deceitful person Leno truly is. No better than the NBC imbecile execs leading him around by his chin. (To those couple of posters who support Leno - the affiliates didn't want Conan canceled. They wanted Jay canceled. NBC canceled Jay because of the lousy show he did (on purpose?!) ) I'll never watch Leno again - or purchase any products advertised on his show. (Hmmm. If I don't watch his show, how will I know what not to purchase?) I won't be watching the local Chicago NBC affiliate's newcast either. (So long Channel 5, WMAQ.) CONAN! CONAN! CONAN!

You mean they didn't fire Zucker yet? Oh, that's right. They are now famous for their horrible decision making. He's not going anywhere.

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