Top NBC execs should get boot, not Conan

February 6, 2010

Will Ferrell and his stirring rendition of Freebird on Friday night marked the end of Conan O’Brien’s short-lived run as host of The Tonight Show.

The bloody late-night battle that led to more than a few casualties, including Conan and his entire staff, has fractured the late-night viewing audience into two camps: Team Leno and Team Coco. While both teams have a passionate following, it is clear one has come out the victor: Conan O’Brian.

The fact is, whether you’re on Team Leno or Coco, it’s easy to say Team NBC needs to be given the boot. If anyone’s career needs to be put on permanent hold it’s the executives who call 30 Rockefeller Plaza home. This fiasco has cost them millions.

On top of the $45 million settlement, which includes $32.5 million for Conan along with around $12 million for his staff, NBC has built not one but two television studios for The Tonight Show and The Jay Leno Show. Both studios are now worthless because the shows produced in them will be off the air.

It appears NBC’s biggest error was misdiagnosing the problem. The decline in ratings can be attributed to the two hosts, but to put the blame squarely on their shoulders ignores the fact ratings have been declining across the board in recent years.

It is true Johnny Carson garnered more viewers than Leno, who gained more viewers than Conan. But neither Carson nor Leno had to compete against TiVo and the internet when they began as hosts of The Tonight Show.

The two comedians also possess completely different approaches to comedy and therefore have vastly different audiences. Leno appeals much more to older adults, compared to Conan whose style draws a much younger crowd – obviously. This didn’t seem so apparent to the NBC executives who naively believed audiences would make the switch seamlessly.

It is also easy to argue giving Leno a similar show an hour and a half earlier stole much of the audience from The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. Most adults likely tuned into Leno and then tuned out altogether.

If there is anything to take away from this mess, it is probably found in O’Brien’s final and oddly sentimental speech as Tonight Show host: “Please don’t be cynical. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they wanted.”

I’m sure we will see him again, and if the enormous outpouring of enthusiasm from Team Coco is any indication, it will likely be sooner than later.

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