There’s no question that Conan O’Brien has been mistreated by NBC. But his camp is indulging in some revisionist history regarding whether he had fair opportunity to prove himself ratings-wise.
O’Brien’s stint on “The Tonight Show” premiered to huge sampling in June. Through the summer, the ratings steadily drifted downward, until he was well behind David Letterman in total viewers and leading him slightly or roughly a push in key demos.
So the “NBC’s rotten primetime and Jay Leno’s crappy lead-ins killed Conan” argument doesn’t really fly.
By the way, all of this was predictable — and I say this having predicted it, writing a column in May in which I said that while I personally admired O’Brien’s talents, his appeal was much narrower than that of Leno and I was skeptical as to whether he was “Too smart for the room,” especially given who he was replacing.
It’s also why I wrote a column a year earlier, in May 2008, saying there was “no pain-free solution” to the latenight succession question, when NBC was fretting that Leno might bolt to another network. Finally, it’s also why I theorized all the way back in 2006 that despite NBC’s promise to O’Brien, there were those who still thought the network might get cold feet and pay him off. Or, as I wrote a little over three years ago:
The Peacock network shrewdly tucked all the kids into bed by
formally anointing O’Brien the “Tonight” heir two years ago, buying
itself several years of profits and tranquility. In the process,
though, top brass also alienated Leno, 56, a good soldier who
associates say felt betrayed in having been elbowed, however gently,
toward the exit door.
Leno’s next move is anybody’s guess, but
his range of options puts him in the driver’s seat. NBC could get cold
feet and opt to keep its present host at 11:30, in which case O’Brien
would surely jump elsewhere, collecting a fat penalty payment for his
time. Some rival execs still see this as the likely outcome, especially
with parent General Electric assuming greater oversight of the network.
As one source put it, “Why would you shut down a division of GE” —
that is, “The Tonight Show” — “that’s a leader in its field and brings
in hundreds of millions of dollars?”
Indeed, the current scenario in latenight wasn’t all that hard to foresee — other than the fact that NBC kept managing to postpone the painful decision part. And while I sympathize with O’Brien and his camp and even his fans who are expressing their discontent about the situation on the Internet (wow, there’s a first) — having gotten so close to his dream and then having the rug essentially pulled out from under him — the truth is if he’d been kicking ass in latenight all summer, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.