Wednesday, January 13, 2010


I don't watch any of the NBC Latenight Boys, preferring Letterman if I am in the mood for such things. But I have to join in the chorus of those proffering their respect for Conan O'Brien's announcement to the Earthlings the other day. It was heartfelt, a bit self-deprecating, and well-received by just about everybody. Well, except the hacks at NBC.

What a mess Jeff Zucker (right) created when he replaced five primetime hours of scripted programing with a talk show. It will remain one of the lousiest decisions in the history of television. That guy from the affiliate in Boston was right months ago. Remember him? When this half-assed decision was announced last spring, Boston station owner Ed Ansin announced his plans to decline Leno's show and move his own local news program into the 10 PM hour instead. He requested that his station be allowed to delay the Leno show until 11 PM, a request which was vehemently rejected by NBC. The network was so incensed (and so frightened that the move in Boston, the 7th largest viewing area in the country, would encourage other stations to follow suit), they warned Ansin that if he preempted Leno, they would strip his station of the NBC affiliation completely, and turn their local Telemundo station into the Boston NBC affiliate. Ansin backed down, and, well, we now know what a crummy idea putting Leno on at 10 PM has turned out to be. (I knew it all along, but nobody asked me.)
But back to Conan. He's now decided he will not continue with The Tonight Show if it moves to the post-midnight slot; he feels strongly that the franchise cannot survive that late in the evening. Leno, meanwhile, seems agreeable to return to the 11:35 slot with a half-hour show, whether it's called The Tonight Show or not.
There are several aspects of this issue which interest me. A talk show seems to be the most "personality driven" of all television programs. The host's personality dominates just about every creative decision made for these shows, so it must be particularly devastating to be jerked around like these NBC guys. The host position carries so much weight that his show is always referred to by the host's name, regardless of the actual title of the program. Do you tune into The Late Show? No, you watch Letterman. Even The Tonight Show, the most recognizable name-brand in the evening talk show arena, is almost always referred to by its host. Did you watch The Tonight Show during its heyday? No, you stayed up to see who was on Carson. These days, it's Conan and Leno, Kimmel and Fallon; I would have to stop writing, and google these guys to get the actual names of the programs they host.

What am I getting at? I understand completely the sense of betrayal Conan in particular is feeling, which must be frustrating as he is still, technically, employed by The Tonight Show. If the network decides to change timeslots for its show, I'm not sure he has much to say in the matter.

Primetime stars, no matter how powerful, have very little, if any, influence on where their shows are placed on the schedule. I'm thinking now of three huge sitcom stars of past years: Seinfeld, Roseanne, and Cosby. All three headlined programs which weren't just smash hits, but were actual cultural touchstones for their eras. They may have partially owned their shows, but none of them had any input on where their programs would be placed on the network schedule.

Oprah, arguably the most powerful woman in television, owns her show, and is not tied to a particular network, but other than insuring she is never in competition with Dr. Phil (which she produces), even she cannot dictate exactly where her program is placed on the schedule.

Conan can't either. I'm not suggesting he roll over and play dead for the network nitwits who are scrambling to rectify a mistake which never should have been made in the first place; if I were in his position, I would probably give NBC the well-deserved finger, and bolt. From what I understand of his contract, the network is within its rights to move The Tonight Show to 12:05 and expect Conan to remain with the program, but everyone will be surprised if he does so. NBC cannot force him to continue with the show, they can only prevent his working elsewhere for a time. I read somewhere that neither the network nor Conan are looking for a legal battle over this debacle.
In my opinion, the villain here is NBC honcho Jeff Zucker, who created this fiasco. He should be sacked, but first he should be sent back to Boston, so station manager Ed Ansin can tell him I Told You So.