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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The Sports Guy puts the nail in NBC's Leno-Conan coffin

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



Comments () | Archives (24)

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I hope Conan does go to Comedy Central and like the man said--just be himself.

I love the idea to move to Comedy Central. I was just lamenting on my blog that Jon Stewart is the only late night bright spot remaining:

"The Conan fiasco has left a bad taste in my mouth. Not so much because NBC threw Conan under the bus, but because it has revealed two sad truths about the state of late-night: all late-night hosts are cut-throat pricks (yes, even Conan) and there is no king (or even really funny prince) of late night. But it’s Friday and I’m not interested in being “that guy” who bums everyone out before happy hour, I want to be “that other guy” that everyone wants to hang out with and buy beers for after work. So let’s forget about the current late-night miasma, and embrace the one good thing we have left on late night, the godfather himself, Jon Stewart."

Leno got destroyed in the ratings by Letterman for his first 2 years but whatever. Not to mention his prime time show has already been dubbed 'the biggest bomb in tv history'. Oh well, Americans love mediocrity and nothingness, which is why a zero talent like Leno has ruled late night for a generation.

stick with sports...this analysis is all wrong. when conan jumps to fox in september and crushes his competition, nbc's exec's (if they are still there after comcast sees what they did to the network when they take over) and you will eat crow.

Jon Stewart doesn't need a lead in - he's an alternative to the "actual news" people watching him don't want to watch the bs, slanted, network or affiliate news programs. SNL has been on for about 30 years, so that isn't the brightest comparison. Leno at 10:00 effectively meant there were 2 Tonight Shows, why watch the later one when you can be catching up on much needed sleep? His defence is valid.

PS - To be clear; I meant Conan's defence is valid!

Absolutely the first smart piece written about the whole Conan mess. Conan has a sense of entitlement....and he failed at his job which was to bring in ratings. Why is he a martyr? He was offered a new time slot and he should have taken it and started to work on morphing his show to beat Dave. I can't stand his pompous act... he seems like a phony and the whole stunt with playing the Stones 'Satisfaction' to blow money...... Well honestly....what TV executive would hire him. Seems like a disgruntled employee who is one step away from going postal. You know what they say about red-heads and their tempers!

Conan is not a network TV guy, thats the issue. Thats why Tonight Show under his reign hasn't been as good. Where Jay is. Jay should have shows on Network TV. But Conan needs to go to cable. Comedy central would work, But I would prefer him on FX though.

They seem to be attempting to gain a foothold in the comedy market with "The League" and "Archer." Having Conan's new show would instantly give them a well known accepted name in the comedy market. And FX has looser standards then even cable. I mean look at Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me. Conan with that much comedic wiggle room...It would even outdo Late Night I think. He would be him at his purest as an artist.

Leno may be hackneyed and not funny but he is savvy. He totally out maneuvered Conan. If Conan had been smart he would have put a provision in his contract against Leno doing a 10pm show since there was a precedent to it. NBC had offered Letterman a 10pm show after they gave Leno the Tonight Show (Letterman turned it down). The ratings show that Conan was losing slightly to Dave until Leno's show came on. Then his ratings fell like a rock.

Conan didn't show entitlement, he didn't want to move the Tonight Show to 11:05 and damage the franchise. He also didn't want to penalise Fallon who's show would also be moved 30 minutes. Conan also had a provision in his contact that gave him millions ($32 mil.?) if he didn't get the show or was taken off before a specified time. It's Leno that has the sense of entitlement, that felt it was OK to slide right back to Tonight and bump Conan out of the way when his show bombed and he was also given 3 years to build his audience at 11:35.

The only move they should have made was to get rid of Leno's prime time show to give Conan a fair shot to see if he was going to work or not. If then Conan still couldn't get the ratings then they could have dumped him.

This analysis would've been good...had this whole debacle taken place a few months from now. His whole hypothesis is built on Conan's "failure" to morph his show and get the ratings. I would argue that seven months is nowhere near enough time to make the show his own, and that NBC's bailing this soon does make Conan the victim here, not the failure.

If he had been going at it over a year or so without any noticeable improvement, then calling him out for not pulling the ratings might be acceptable. But NBC gave Leno a heckuva lot more time, and only panicked this soon because of the affiliates and their suffering newscasts.

Not a good analysis in January 2010. Conan wasn't given the time, and is not to blame for this disaster.

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