Assuming that Jeff Gaspin’s comments on Sunday that all the talk show hosts (we’re looking at you, Conan) had only the weekend to think over whether they’re OK with Jay Leno moving to 11:35p, Conan moving to 12:05a-1:05a and Jimmy Fallon moving to 1:05a-2:05a, there will be no bigger news in the TV world this week than what Conan O’Brien decides to do.
Will he stay at NBC or will he run off to another network? If he stays at NBC, the overall “NBC debacle” is still the biggest story for a while, but that’s not nearly as big of a story as it’s going to pay if Conan moves to another network, say FOX.
I’m not much of a late night TV talk show fan and haven’t been in nearly two decades. I don’t have any skin, or even a rooting interest about who wins and loses in the ratings. I don’t have any opinion on Conan’s comedic talents. But he strikes me as a pretty classy guy.
He knew he was getting The Tonight Show for ages, but when it was announced around six months before he was supposed to grab the reins of The Tonight Show that Leno would in fact be sticking around at NBC and getting the 10pm hour, Conan didn’t make a big stink about it.
I don’t think any reasonable person could’ve faulted Conan for being less than ecstatic about that news. But he didn’t act like a diva about it. He acted like a company guy and played ball with NBC and at least in public, he was nothing but supportive about it.
He had big shoes to fill. Leno had dominated late-night for ages, and under Conan’s watch that lead has completely eroded away. Letterman grabbed a dominating lead in total viewers, and even with adults 18-49 the lead has evaporated to the point where mostly the 18-49 ratings are on par with Letterman’s. What long-term role the Letterman scandal played in the ratings game is hard to say.
As for the notion of Conan being hurt by Jay Leno being on at 10pm, there might be some truth in it, though it winds up in the realm of “How good of a hitter would Babe Ruth have been if he had to face the likes of Satchel Paige regularly?”
But nobody could fault Conan if he thinks of NBC through the eyes of some Clash lyrics and thinks “It’s always tease, tease, tease. You’re happy when I’m on my knees.” Reportedly, he found out about NBC wanting to move Jay Leno back to a 11:30p the same way most everyone else did: by reading it on TMZ!
If true, there are few people who wouldn’t be furious in a similar situation. Worse perhaps is that it seems the whole notion of only having a half hour of Jay Leno at 11:30, rather than a full hour, is a maneuver by NBC to avoid paying huge contract penalties to Conan.
The notion of Conan moving to FOX is very appealing to the mainstream media (and perhaps FOX). Certainly, just by itself FOX deciding to get back into the Mon-Fri late night game would be news. But given all the carnage at NBC, Conan pulling up stakes adds even more sexiness to that story.
Selfishly, from our TV by the Numbers perspective it would certainly make interest in the late night ratings a lot more interesting. At least initially.
The real question isn’t whether moving to FOX would be great for mainstream media outlets and web sites (and perhaps FOX), the real question is whether moving would be Conan’s best move. While it’s easy to understand why Conan would be furious with NBC, if he can get over that, staying at NBC might be his best option.
But will anybody fault Conan if he flees NBC as fast as he possibly can?