Latenight’s Second-Biggest Loser: ‘Team Conan’

William Morris Endeavor likes to boast about how the agency represents more than 50% of the major networks’ primetime lineups. When you throw that kind of weight around, however, one of the advantages is supposed to be that you have the clout to prevent your biggest clients from getting publicly screwed.

There’s no question that NBC fares worst in the whole latenight mess, and NBC Universal’s Jeff Zucker didn’t help himself much by taking refuge on PBS’ “Charlie Rose” on Monday — normally the safest haven in media for a CEO under fire. No wonder he closed by saying, “I always enjoy being here.”

Still, the runner-up award goes to what’s come to be known as Team Conan.

WME appears to have employed the same strategy in the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien square-off that Endeavor’s principals did during their merger — carefully channeling info to selected sources in an effort to sway the negotiations. Blogger Nikki Finke — who has accused the New York Times, not without some justification, of “taking dictation” from NBC — was apparently more than happy to advance the “Team Leno Conan” talking points, mostly because they dovetail with her well-documented contempt for Zucker.

For all that, it didn’t work. WME client O’Brien didn’t get what he wanted. And NBC wound up going back to Leno, who doesn’t really have a “team,” per se, just a lawyer.

“I don’t have a manager. I don’t have an agent,” Leno said on his show Monday, referring to making a “handshake deal” with the network.

There are limits, in other words, to what even the biggest agencies can accomplish when they run into a desperate network. Buyers can be pushed around to a degree, but ultimately, they get the final say.

I say this, by the way, as an admirer of O’Brien who was also skeptical that his show would be broad enough to succeed in the 11:35 p.m. slot. In the final analysis, that was the calculation that NBC made as well, albeit off a mere seven months of evidence.

There’s little doubt that O’Brien will land somewhere else, though his options aren’t as glittering as they were in 2004, when NBC promised him “The Tonight Show” if he’d just wait five years. Accepting that offer, too, was a calculated risk driven by O’Brien’s desire to occupy that chair, since both ABC and Fox were circling the red-headed host. In hindsight, he should have jumped ship then.

O’Brien’s agent, Rick Rosen, is an extremely smart guy, but I question WME’s impulse under Ari Emanuel to conduct such skirmishes as if they were bare-knuckled political campaigns. NBC brass might have done plenty of dumb stuff, but they’re not so dumb that they can’t recognize the likely source of anti-NBC items that surfaced during the negotiations. And while nothing might have altered the final outcome, it’s difficult to see how the bitter tone benefited O’Brien. Several industry veterans I’ve spoken to about the situation privately agree.

At any rate, from my sideline seat watching this rugby game, the final score is Leno, 1; Team Conan and NBC, 0. And while even Leno isn’t really a winner here, there are plenty of potential losers.

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