The NBC late night debacle

So I’ve been following this whole mess between NBC, Conan O’Brien, & Jay Leno pretty closely since the rumors started popping up last week, and I don’t see any possible way that NBC could have screwed the pooch more than they did here.

Conan O’Brien is probably my biggest influence as a comedian. I’ve been watching his show regularly since 1995, back when I was 13. Hell, I used to record his show, and then piggyback two VCRs together and make compilation tapes of his best jokes, bits, and interviews. Kinda crazy, sure, but there’s always been something about Conan that makes me laugh. Doesn’t matter how bad my day’s been, when I tune into his show, I just can’t help but laugh. Maybe it’s a redheaded geek kindred spirit thing. Who knows.

When it was announced in 2004 that Conan would be taking over The Tonight Show in five years, I was ecstatic. It was nice to see NBC respected Conan enough to give him their flagship show, and that planning the switch that far ahead would help them avoid a messy situation like what happened between Leno/Letterman when Johnny Carson retired. Needless to say I wasn’t happy when in the months leading up to the intended switch there were rumblings that Jay wasn’t ready to hand over the reins. So NBC worked out a deal to keep Jay on at 10pm in order to keep him from going to another network.

I didn’t like this for a couple of reasons. For one, that’s five less scripted shows per week, and as a person who loves scripted TV, I hate seeing five hours of primetime programming wiped off the board for something like this. For another, it struck me as an unclassy move. In their bid to keep Jay from going to a rival network, NBC pretty much slapped Conan in the face by putting another talk show on an hour and a half earlier, and it greatly diminished the significance of Conan taking over as host of the Tonight Show.

So what do the brilliant suits at NBC do? They decide to give Leno a half hour show at 11:35, then follow that up with Conan & Jimmy Fallon. Conan released a statement today saying he wouldn’t do the Tonight Show starting at 12:05, because moving the Tonight Show back to the next day would tarnish the franchise. And you know what? He’s absolutely right. The Tonight Show has started at 11:35 for 60 years, and NBC’s proposed plan would ultimately end in failure for all parties involved.

Despite how much he’s been taking shots at NBC, I don’t really see that Jay has reason to complain. He’s getting exactly what he wants: His 11:35 time slot back. And now that Conan has said he won’t be responsible for moving the Tonight Show to 12:05, all Jay has to do is sit back and wait until NBC shuffles Conan out the door and gives him the keys to the Tonight Show again. My perfect world scenario is that Leno takes the classy route of stepping down and letting go of the show he promised to Conan five years ago. But considering that he’s said recently that he’d take the Tonight Show back if NBC offered it to him, I really don’t see that happening.

There is one person who gets screwed over in this whole mess that nobody’s talking about, and that’s Carson Daly. The proposed change would find his show canceled (no idea if he gets to stay if Jay takes the Tonight Show back.) Now, when Carson Daly first came onto the late night scene, I hated his show. And I hated it because he tried to do a typical late night talk show: Open with some jokes, maybe do a bit, then guests. And that didn’t work, primarily because he’s not a comedian. However, since then he’s found a format that really works for him, where he just sits down and talks to people, and has guests on the show who are interesting or just now breaking out. I’ve found that I actually like it a lot, and regularly watch his show as part of my late night lineup.

I would love for Conan O’Brien to remain the host of the Tonight Show. I think he deserves it, and I think he’s earned it. Conan’s tenure as Tonight Show host has been much more reminiscent of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show than Leno’s ever was, and it’s always much more interesting. When Leno was host, I’d only tune in if there was a guest I liked. With Conan as host, I want to catch every monologue, every bit, every guest. Unfortunately, it’s looking more and more likely that Conan is going to be heading to Fox, rather than remain a part of the Tonight Show legacy. And I can’t say that I blame him. While I do still curse Fox for canceling far too many quality shows before giving them a chance (I’m looking at you, Firefly), they’d probably give him more respect than NBC does. The best late night host in the biz deserves to be on a network that isn’t continually in last place. But with great programming decisions like this, is it really any wonder that NBC’s a sinking ship?

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