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