Conan O’Brien Is the Villain

Conan O’Brien is the real villain in the “Tonight Show” controversy, contrary to the claims of his supporters. Several years ago O’Brien bamboozled NBC into taking the “Tonight Show” away from Jay Leno and giving it to him in spite of the fact that Leno had been leading his time slot for years. That’s the equivalent of benching Bret Favre to play a quarterback who has never made the playoffs.

Shortly before the transition from Leno to O’Brien someone at NBC figured out Leno was one of the few at the network who could actually win his time slot. To keep him, NBC decided to put him on in prime time even though variety shows, except for contest shows like “American Idol”, hadn’t worked in prime time for years.

The gamble didn’t work. NBC lost viewers in both time slots and local affiliates complained because they were losing viewers.

Late local news programs are often considered relatively equivalent by viewers. Many viewers will watch whichever news program comes on after the prime time program they watched or before the late program they want to watch, particularly considering that there may not be any commercials between the end of one program and the start of the next. Many of those viewers who switched to David Letterman for late night viewing may have switched news programs as well.

Conan O’Brien complained because he had “only” seven months to show what he could do with the “Tonight Show”. He ignored the fact that prime time television shows are typically only given about seven months to convince a network to give the show another season. Jay Leno would have been justified in protesting his removal from the “Tonight Show” because he was dominating the time slot at the time. O’Brien has nothing to complain about because he failed to match Leno’s success.

Unlike the previous two Tonight Show hosts, O’Brien had been doing a similar show for several years. Johnny Carson had been doing a game show when he was given the job. Jay Leno had guest hosted the Tonight Show, but had never had a show of his own.

O’Brien’s failure to match Leno’s audience indicates he wasn’t ready for that time slot. He should not have been surprised that NBC wanted him to move back and let Leno take over the first 30 minutes after the local news..

NBC has recognized that Leno is more valuable to the network than O’Brien and is doing what it should have done years ago, let O’Brien go somewhere else.

CBS’s David Letterman and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel have sided with O’Brien for obvious reasons. The last thing they want is to have to compete with Leno again.

For example, Letterman, who hasn’t been paying attention, on his Jan. 19 program suggested that Leno should have just left NBC. The people at NBC have learned something since Letterman left. They had Leno under contract to prevent him from doing that. They gave him the prime time show to keep him from attempting to go to another network like Fox.

Leno essentially threatened to go to Fox in his monologue after NBC canceled his prime time show. NBC recognized that letting Leno go elsewhere would hurt their ratings and decided to put him back in at least part of his old time slot to keep him at NBC. O’Brien issued the ultimatum, essentially saying the network wasn’t big enough for him and Leno and NBC said “okay, you leave.”

NBC is so thrilled to have Leno back on the Tonight Show it started advertising the Jay Leno Tonight Show before Conan O’Brien’s final performance. NBC is the big winner in this fight. It replaced two rating losers with at least one rating winner the Jay Leno Tonight Show. O’Brien with his $32 million settlement can hardly be described as a loser, although with his record at NBC he probably won’t get another major network program in the near future.

CBS’s David Letterman and ABC are the likely losers. Leno has already demonstrated he can dominate the first hour of late night. Whatever programs NBC replaces Leno’s prime time program with are likely to draw parts of the audience from the CBS and ABC programs in that time slot even if NBC still has the lowest rated programs in the time slot.

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