Conan Camp’s Revisionist Ratings History

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.

Conan 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.


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  1. T-Bone says:

    Old dumb people like Leno. Young intelligent people like Conan. Old people don’t sell. Good luck, NBC! Good Luck, Leno! After the pact made you guys made with Satan end (when the old people die or don’t want to watch), then, NBC and Leno gets what the want – low ratings and much more grumblings. Let’s show it to them , Conan!!!!

  2. Max says:

    Screw Conan and Jay. They should get this guy to host:
    http://www.somestupidshow.com

  3. DR says:

    No surprises with the outcome. Conan’s appeal is too narrow.
    And regarding Conan’s recent surge in ratings, we have started watching it again to see the creating bickering. It’s not that we like Conan, we don’t, but the battle with NBC is entertaining.

  4. Maddie says:

    Revisionist history? Maybe you didnt see what NBC released today:
    “NBC’s The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien has topped all broadcast and cable competition in the key late-night demographic of adults 18-49 for the week of January 4-8.” and “Conan has finished #1 or tied for #1 among broadcast networks in adult 18-49 rating for nine of the last 11 weeks. The median age of Conan’s audience last week was 45.6, nine years younger than Nightline’s” 55.0 and 11 years younger than Letterman’s 57.3.”
    Look at ‘by the numbers” and you find exactly what everyone already knows. Leno sucked the funny out of the evening and the local news lead in when Leno started his show in September.
    http://tvbythenumbers.com/2010/01/14/conan-obrien-and-jimmy-fallon-top-all-cable-and-broadcast-competition-in-18-49-viewers-for-the-week-of-jan-4-8/38961
    Had Zucker not put him there Conan’s ratings rise would have been at the level already.
    “In total viewers, “Late Night” delivered its biggest audience in 16 weeks (since the week of September 14-20)”
    Do the Math. The Leno show debuted September 14th 2009.

  5. Hannah says:

    Looks like that check from Zuckerman cleared…

  6. Grace says:

    Ech, I’m not sold on the idea that Conan should’ve been able to beat Letterman straight out of the gate. Summer’s a pretty dead time for viewership, I thought. And of COURSE Conan’s ratings were going to take a hit when Leno started airing an hour and a half before him — Johnny Carson’s fans had no choice but to transfer over to Leno or Letterman. In this mess, they got to watch Jay an hour earlier and then just shut off the TV.
    Besides, what about the argument that any late-night host needs a little time to build his audience and settle into the niche? Seven months hardly does it. And that’s not even touching on the Letterman sex scandal ratings.
    So sure, there’s probably some exaggerating on the part of Team Conan. But not much.

  7. W says:

    “The ‘NBC’s rotten primetime and Jay Leno’s crappy lead-ins killed Conan’ argument doesn’t really fly.”
    Disagree. Early sampling is *never* an indicator of long-term success. Effective marketing can launch a show, but that show may not be the best it will be. Leno launched strong, then fell behind Letterman for years before the Hugh Grant get. By then, they had overhauled the Leno set, lengthened the monologue, ratcheted up the comedy, and dumped Branford Marsalis for Kevin Eubanks. The result was a better show–less like Carson’s, more in tune with Leno’s sensibilities and thus more watchable.
    The point is, Leno had more than seven months to figure out what his Tonight Show should be, and Conan deserves the same opportunity. (Yes, Conan has been a host for years now, but he respects history, and he knows that the Carson Tonight Show legacy and the Letterman Late Show legacy are different.)
    So if Leno’s weak numbers have gutted NBC’s primetime performance and are causing NBC’s affiliates to force the network’s hand, and NBC is too chickensh*t to let Leno go to another network, then yes, Leno’s crappy lead-ins will have killed Conan.

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