The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

« Previous Post | The Big Picture Home | Next Post »

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)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Saying Conan is getting a big hand out is not true.

There are managers, agents, publicists, sycophants, stylists, etc. on the gravy train to get paid, so by the time they get through picking him clean, he might walk away with a $1.98.

Leno should have stayed retired. What is he? A sports legend, who thinks he has one last season in him and his bad knee?

the continued cries for Leno to just "be the bigger man and step aside" or those painting him as some sort of puppet master are absurd and do nothing but show peoples' ignorance about the TV business - or any business for that matter. I see Leno as the ultimate company man, pretty much going along with whatever they dictate. decisions like this are made every day in boardrooms across the globe - why portray anyone but the execs as the real bad guys?

what's most surprising is that NBC was so willing to let Conan walk away without a blink of an eye. I don't watch either - unless Conan has a good musical guest on and even then I wouldn't tune in until the last ten minutes - but it seems to me that there's a lot more going on here than we know about.

Conan should try doing a web-based only show. I bet he'd bring way more attention to shows on the web than all the independant web broadcasters out there. I bet he'd be a pioneer in Celebraty Web based shows for his demographic if he concentrated on that. That is the future of media. These ignorant network execs don't realize it but network TV is Dead. Why is NBC chasing the older demographic with Leno?

I concur..PLEASE GO BACK TO WRITING FOR THE SIMPSONS!!! Those were the best episodes ever!!!

Conan going to Comedy Central is an excellent idea. Everyone took a gamble when Conan was given the Tonight Show slot. No one will be taking a gamble with Conan going to Comedy Central. He has a huge payout from the NBC so his finances are good regardless of his taking a paycut; Comedy Central is tailor-made for his type of humor and most importantly, Conan continues to work at what he does best--making people laugh.

"The same thing happened when Johnny Carson got canned for Leno. Older people complained that they loved Carson, while the younger crown was for Leno."

This is completely incorrect.

Johnny Carson did not get canned. He continually wanted to retire. If NBC had its way, he'd be the host until he was 1,000 years old. The Tonight Show used to be 90 minutes, they shortened it to 60 minutes so that it would be less of a chore for Johnny.

You are spot on, I've been saying from the beginning of this that Comedy Central was the place for Conan to go, it is the future, NBC is the past. And Jay Leno is a nutsack with no appeal to anyone under the age of dead except weird right wing functionaries who have the same bizarre sense of entitlement that he has. Jay should just go away, maybe to Iowa, and open up a used car lot...he's got enough of them to do just that, and his persona would fit it perfectly, weasely and slimy and eagerly wanting to screw over the other guy while making lame excuses and pretending to be contrite about the whole sleazy deal...

I think before CC could offer a show to Conan they would have to check with Jon Stewart and his people...(Daily Show, Colbert Report, etc) who may not be all that thrilled with Conan coming on board.
Jon Steward took the Daily Show from its basic cable show (with Craig Kilborn) and turned it into the iconic show it is now (and by saying JS did it, I don't mean Stewart only). Kilborn then did the Late Late Show but left..and now Craig Ferguson took it over and has made the show much more popular.
I'm mentioning Kilborn because while he's had fantastic opportunities which other people have done so much more with...last IMdB listings is a bit in a 2009 film.
It was David Letterman (through Worldwide Pants) who put Kilborn into the LLS, and when he left, Ferguson was chosen from a list of four possibles.
With all the control that Letterman has not only on his own show, but on the LLS, I seriously doubt he would want someone as fractious as Conan working for him. He may have some sympathy for Conan having dealt with NBC and Leno before but not enough, I believe, to do more than makes jokes about the situation.
Letterman created his program(s) and I don't think he's going to let anyone mishandle his creations or legacy. Ferguson works well where he's at and I don't think he'd rock the boat by wanting more--but I don't think he'd step aside for anyone else. When they (Conan & Ferguson) were on at the same time I wouldn't have considered watching Conan.
So: Conan taking over the Late Show: Very doubtful
Conan following Daily Show/Colbert Report: Very doubtful
Conan taking over the Late Late Show: Doubtful
Me really caring about what Conan does: > 0

Leno has spoken -- he'll never work in this city again.

Jeremy Karston -

Most women have more important things to do than comment on blogs. But since I am here, and a woman, I would like to voice my huge support for Conan, having been a fan of his since the mid 90's.
My mother-in-law doesn't like Conan, but she's 60, so there's the generation gap.

« | 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 | »


Recommended on Facebook


In Case You Missed It...

Stay Connected:

About the Bloggers



Get Alerts on Your Mobile Phone

Sign me up for the following lists: