Leno vs. Conan vs. NBC: Who Cares? Save 'The Tonight Show'

Conan supporters gathered outside NBC stations across the country to protest the move of the Tonight Show from 11:35 to 12:05.

If there is any real blame it should go to Conan’s attorneys who didn’t think of writing a specific time slot for the show into his contract. Yet Conan’s supporters insist that Jay Leno is at fault.


Jay is being caricatured as a cry-baby by Conan supporters. In my opinion, Conan is the one being immature, acting like a sixteen year old, who can’t believe his parents are taking the car away … after he wrecked it.

Few remember that Conan isn’t a pacifist. When his contract was up for re-negotiation back in 2003, he told NBC that he wouldn’t sign the contract until the Tonight Show seat was added to the contract. Jay never really raised a stink about being forced out, because he remembered how he got the Tonight Show in the first place.

Jay’s backstabbing grab of the Tonight Show back in 1992 is legendary, and there was little sympathy for Jay when Conan turned the tables on him.

Back in 2003, Jay was quite remorseful about what he had done to Johnny, and Letterman, and he didn’t want to repeat his mistakes. So he agreed to concede the chair. But 2009 came up faster than he imagined, and when the time came to exit, he didn’t want to go. The 10 PM time slot was a compromise to keep Jay’s revenue stream within NBC, and despite its low ratings, Jay continues to make money for the network.

I don’t really get the protests. It’s only a half hour. Are Conan viewers now getting so old that they can no longer stay up until one o’clock? And why don’t they have DVRs like the rest of us? This is the same generation that made fun of their parents for not being able to figure out how to program a VCR.

It’s almost as if they see it as a personal slight, as a rejection of their generation. Perhaps, Conan taking over the Tonight Show was seen as their move into the mainstream. Unfortunately, things like The Masturbating Bear were left behind in the old slot, and without them, Conan never seemed entirely comfortable in The Seat.

It probably would have worked better if the change had been gradual. Jay could have let Conan guest host a few times, to transition the audience slowly. He never once used a guest host though, probably because Jay used his guest hosting to undermine Johnny Carson. He wasn’t about to let anybody sit in his desk even for a minute. It was almost as if he was afraid to leave, fearing his key card would be deactivated when he returned.

There also seems to be a political undercurrent to the Conan protests. Most of Conan’s supporters seem to be liberal, and there is a mistaken impression that Jay is a conservative. (I would describe him as an old school Kennedy Democrat.) Perhaps the anger over Jay is leftover anger once directed at George W. Bush, anger that has been circulating around the hate-o-sphere for the past year looking for a cause to inhabit

There is some likelihood to that scenario. Because when I mention to some Conan supporters that Conan hasn’t been performing terribly well in the ratings, I get the same response I get from Obama supporters for the President’s dismal performance: “He hasn’t had enough time yet.”

In fairness, I should mention that I never found Conan very funny. I liked some of the surrounding comedy on the show, but Conan himself reminded me of the dorky rich kid, whose father bought his way into the cool fraternity. Making silly faces, begging the audience to laugh, and jumping up and down until they did, never quite appealed to me.

Not that I find Jay any funnier. He never seemed comfortable in the seat either. For the past seventeen years he seemed like he was still filling in for Johnny. But that was fine with me. The Tonight Show still felt like The Tonight Show.

Which is why Jay’s Tonight Show was such a powerhouse; It isn’t always about ratings. Jerry Springer consistently beat out Oprah Winfrey in sheer numbers but never made as much money because he couldn’t get advertisers. Pilsbury wasn’t about to associate their muffins with the likes of Springer’s freak show, so their dollars went to Oprah’s less-viewed show. Despite it’s weaknesses, Jay Leno’s Tonight Show had a warm fuzzy feeling to it.

The Tonight Show at one time was responsible for 17% of NBCs operating revenue, and last year was clearing close to a half a million dollars a week. This compared to the projected losses of 3-5 million dollars for 2010 from Conan makes the decision to move Jay back an obvious one. Giving Conan more time to prove himself is a $30 million gamble the network wasn’t willing to take. Like they say, it’s nothing personal, just business.

Jay Leno’s prime time show will obviously be remembered as the worst business decision since New Coke. When it all shakes out, it will probably be no different than it would have been if NBC let Conan go to another network back in 2004. The difference is, when Old Coke returned, it was more popular than ever. I’m not convinced that the same nostalgia will benefit Jay when he returns.


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