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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

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Cathy Bishop- viewers like you are probably like the viewers of Johnny Carson. If they put Johnny Carson on at 10 after giving the Tonight Show to Jay at 11:30, there would be no way Jay would be successful. Johnny's fans would stick with him, as you did with Jay, and there would be no way Jay would be successful with that lineup, as with Conan.

The difference, however, is that Johnny Carson was a man. He stepped down and allowed Jay to have his show, AND, the opportunity to win over his fans. People like you who say Jay deserves it are missing the big picture here. Jay is a coward for allowing this to happen by not stepping down.

Why should any one have any sympathy for Conan? Let's see: We have a talk show host with limited comic skills and little evidence that he actually went to an ivy league school, he is so filled with his own self-importance that he could not move his show back one half hour, he is so egocentric that he thinks he alone can save the Tonight show. Really? Conan had it easy and if he compromised the way Leno was able to do he would still have the Tonight Show. Leno is the smart one who knows that by working and staying focused is the best way to get what you want. Leno has earned a second chance whereas Conan has blown his. What Kimmel fears is that he will be replaced with Conan on ABC. I think Conan has no future. Fox does not need a talk show to make money. They should get rid of Fallon as well. he has the least amount of talent of all of them. Why anyone would think that Conan has made the best move here is beyond me. This is not the way the world works. How many other people who left late night tv have ever come back?

@Chris: Jay stepped down from The Tonight Show exactly as agreed and Conan took over. The Jay Leno Show at 10PM flopped and so the NBC execs had two late night talk show hosts on their hands.

They had to choose between the #1 rated late night host (Leno @ 5.7M viewers @ 11:35PM @ 2008) or the #3 rated late night host (Conan @ 2.9M viewers @ 11:35PM @ 2009). The went with the #1 guy. So why didn't Leno just refuse the offer?

Leno's got a Vegas show, does corporate events, and does SoCal comedy clubs. So either he's really greedy or really likes telling jokes to people. If it was greed he'd ignore the SoCal comedy circuit and do Vegas. So it seems to me that it's something he really likes doing. So getting an offer to do The Tonight Show again, of course he'd jump on it. How can you blame someone for doing something they love?

As for being given the opportunity to win over his fans, Conan had 17 years on Late Night to smooth out his routine. And he had five years advance knowledge that he was going to be on at 11:35PM. Leno didn't have that much prep time so of course he got more slack.

Conan deserves the same amount of blame as Leno (though Zucker deserves the most). He should have adapted his show to 11:35PM but he didn't. Since he didn't aim for a wider audience, he got killed in the ratings about a month after his show premiered (three months before JLS showed up) by Letterman. In fact, almost from the start Conan's run on The Tonight Show saw an almost 50% drop in total viewers.

Leno isn't blameless in any of this. Maybe he saw Conan's numbers and did the math like a TV exec did. Maybe he did deliberately tank his show so as to force NBC into this situation. That's pure speculation.

But what isn't speculation is that Conan's show was sucking badly and he's to blame for that. Conan didn't try to win over a new audience he just assumed they'd come to him.

For those who are too young - or were too uninterested, at the time - to recall, it might help to get some background on this story. Read all about how Leno acquired The Tonight Show gig, back in 1993. (NY Times; 1994)

Comedy Central: I was thinking the same thing! It's a perfect fit for Conan. I'll keep my fingers crossed.

Hey Jeremy K ... I'm a female. I think my comment about Conan's show was an ok one .... as in positive. I do respect that he went to bat for and negotiated financial settlements for his staff, many of whom (if not most) moved clear across the country to be on the show. To me that speaks volumes. Additionally both Conan and Jay paid their staff personally during the writers' strike. Again, that speaks volumes for both men in my book; taking care of the people who are an intricate part of who you are professionally through their work.

I think the studio was beautiful and loved the background scenes as well as the furnishings and the over all polished look to the set. I enjoyed the interaction of all participating in the program and I noticed a humbleness to Conan as he introduced and made comments about his guests. That being said, I also enjoy the interaction of Jay, Kevin, and others on Leno's show.

This late night show had class and was entertaining when the late great Steve Allen hosted the show, since then it has been a succession of talking head hosts and theatrical/movie hustlers pushing their stuff.
Letterman looks like a mid-West small town banker with the nastiness of a Joseph Goebbels; he would not be out of place in insomniac TV commercials selling Sham Wow and Slap Chop; come to think of it, maybe they should hire that Vince guy to host a late night show, maybe on FOX: the guy is really spontaneously funny and always cracks me up whenever i see him. My favorite is the toss of the competitor's food chopper backhanded, over his shoulder and smack dab into the sink!!
Let's urge the networks to hire this fresh face and dump the nasty, no-talent talking heads YEAH!!

Yes! I've been saying Conan should go to Comedy Central since before his letter to NBC and the "people of earth." I even made it my IM signature! Following Stewart and Colbert is where Conan fits and how fun would it be to not have to change the channel for a solid 2 hours each night!?!

For those of you who are too young to recall - or who weren't particularly interested, at the time - it might help to get some background on the whole Leno v. Letterman story. Read all about how Jay Leno acquired The Tonight Show hosting gig, way back in 1993.
. (article from NY Times; 1994)

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