The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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The Sports Guy puts the nail in NBC's Leno-Conan coffin

January 22, 2010 | 12:24 pm

Even though he's best known as a sportswriter, Bill Simmons is so ridiculously whip-smart about so many things that I guess I shouldn't be surprised to discover that he probably has the savviest take on NBC's Leno-Conan late-night debacle. After all, Simmons (also known as the Sports Guy), often crams his books and ESPN columns with tons of pop culture references to his favorite movies and TV shows. (Check out the wonderfully apt Vin Diesel "The Fast and the Furious" shout-out in his latest tribute to the kingly talents of LeBron James). 


As it turns out, it was actually Simmons who broke the news -- via a tweet, of course -- that O'Brien was leaving "The Tonight Show." Simmons probably has good sources, since he was one of the original writers on "Jimmy Kimmel Live." So he has every reason to have strong opinions about the whole late-night mess. The Vulture's Will Leitch persuaded Simmons to focus his brainpower on why things went so wrong so fast. And Simmons minces no words, even echoing my proposal that Conan should jump to Comedy Central, where he'd be a perfect closing act after Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Here are a few highlights:

On Conan in "The Tonight Show" time slot:

Conan's show sucked at 11:35. That's the reason the ratings were down -- not because of his lead-ins. What's Jon Stewart's lead-in? What's SNL's lead-in? Conan did a watered-down, toothless version of his 12:35 show, and even his die-hard fans weren't crazy about it. These are the facts. Look, he's not Johnny Carson; he's a gawky, super-witty, awkward, hyperactive goofball who isn't going to appeal to everyone. I don't see Fox at 11 working either. ... If he were smart, he'd go Comedy Central at 12, follow Colbert and Stewart and just be himself.

On how Conan handled the situation: 

I thought he was too whiny. Look, it's television. His job was to deliver ratings and revenue; he lost nearly 50 percent of Leno's 11:35 audience in six months, but took none of the blame and made no effort to fix his show. This wasn't his fault? ... It was foolish of him to think Leno would fade into the sunset in 2009. We're gonna to have to chop Leno's head off like Jason Voorhees to get him off TV.

Does Leno's audience really care that he's getting bashed by the media chattering class?

Yes and no. He dumbed down his show intentionally knowing he'd win the ratings game that way. And he did. You're right, his audience could give a crap: They're too busy applying to be on the next "Hoarders." But that same audience splintered when he abandoned the 11:35 slot. Some stayed with Conan, others went to Colbert, "Nightline," "SportsCenter," online, whatever. Once people stop getting in the habit of seeing you, it's hard to get them back. 

But is this all too much about nothing in the era of Hulu and DVRs?

Did you see the numbers? Leno's 11:35 show made $35-$40 million profit for NBC; Conan's show was on pace to lose $5 million and had zero critical buzz. ... Look at where Conan was five years ago and where he is now. It's one of the biggest falls in TV history. NBC paid $43 million to get rid of him! It was the TV version of the Knicks buying out Stephon Marbury last year, only without tattoos, Kathleen Decker, and a truck party.

Photo: Conan O'Brien on his debut night on "The Tonight Show." Photo credit: NBC