Last Friday, Conan O’Brien gave an emotional goodbye to his position as the host of ‘The Tonight Show.’ This came just seven months after he took the reigns from former host Jay Leno.
Two weeks ago, NBC, which airs ‘The Tonight Show,’ announced it would be moving ‘The Jay Leno Show’ to Conan’s time slot,’ and ‘The Tonight Show’ would be pushed back to 12:05′ a.m. The shift was not wholly unexpected. Ratings for both shows were poor, and many anticipated NBC would have to make drastic changes.
To fully understand the situation, one needs to go back to 2004. In September of that year, O’Brien was announced as the new host of ‘The Tonight Show,’starting in 2009. Leno would step down and seemingly go into retirement.
The announcement was the culmination of O’Brien’s contract negotiations with NBC. O’Brien sought to move his show ‘Late Night With Conan O’Brien’ from 12:35 a.m. to the more desirable 11:35 p.m. timeslot. With all parties in agreement, the late night hosts returned to cracking jokes.
In 2009, Leno stepped down as host, but he did not retire. Rumors circulated that Leno was being courted by ABC to do a competing late night show. As host of ‘The Tonight Show,’ Leno brought in high ratings, beating the competition. If he were to leave NBC, his viewers might follow suit. Fearing this, NBC devised a way to give O’Brien ‘The Tonight Show’ and keep Leno on their network.
Most networks use the time between 10 – 11 p.m. for edgier programming, with content geared toward older audiences. NBC executives thought they could start a new tradition save a large amount of money by putting Leno in that time slot, rather than scripted programming. The strategy was bold, unprecedented and turned out to be a colossal failure.
It turns out that people watching television at 10 p.m. would rather watch regular programming, as opposed to a variety show. Viewership for ‘The Jay Leno Show’ was low, and competing networks were killing Leno in the ratings.
Not only were Leno’s ratings low, but because his program was a lead-in to the evening news, even the local news programs of NBC affiliates experienced a substantial drop in ratings.
With local news viewers down, ‘The Tonight Show’ also experienced a substantial drop in the ratings. With Leno at the helm, ‘The Tonight Show’ was No. 1 in late night television. Under O’Brien’s command, it dropped to No. 2, behind ‘The Late Show with David Letterman.’
The affiliate uprising, combined with the poor ratings of ‘The Tonight Show,’ left NBC with no choice but to cancel ‘The Jay Leno Show’ and return to a traditional prime time schedule. The executives decided to bump O’Brien back and keep Leno on NBC. The NBC prime time scheduling experiment had ended, just four months after it began. O’Brien was able to live his dream of hosting ‘The Tonight Show’ for a mere seven months.
Shortly after the scheduling move, O’Brien issued a press release cheekily addressed to ‘People of Earth.’ In it, he declared he could not host ‘The Tonight Show’ at 12:05 a.m., because doing so would change the whole nature of the show. He stated that he ‘cannot participate in what I honestly believe is (the) destruction’ of ‘The Tonight Show.’
It was unlikely that NBC would fire Leno and keep O’Brien – after all, they worked hard to keep Leno in the first place. So the question became how much O’Brien would get out of the network for leaving.
O’Brien had a binding contract with NBC, so if the NBC executives wished to replace him they would have to ‘buy’ him out of his contract. In return, O’Brien would end his run on ‘The Tonight Show,’ allowing Leno to return. After days of negotiations, O’Brien received a $45 million settlement ($12 million of which was distributed to his staff).
The terms of the negotiations are vague, but it appears that O’Brien may not be able to talk about the entire incident for some time. He may have also lost some intellectual property to the network – ‘The Masturbating Bear’ for example might never appear again.
The whole drama made for some of the best late night comedy in years. David Letterman was particularly biting in his comments, as he had his own NBC kerfuffle with Leno (Big Jaw, as Letterman so cordially refers to him) over ‘The Tonight Show.’ Jimmy Kimmel, hosted an entire episode of ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live!’ as Jay Leno. He even mocked the popular Leno segments, such as ‘Headlines.’ Kimmel later went on Leno’s show and delivered several critical comments. O’Brien made no effort to hide the conflict.
Now that Conan O’Brien has left late night, many people wonder what he will do next. He has joked about some of his future, such as starring in porn and guest starring on other television shows. More realistically, Fox and the cable channel FX are seriously considering adding O’Brien to their schedules.
During this whole mess, O’Brien remained a gentleman. His fans rallied around him under the moniker ‘Team Coco.’
Even his late night competition sided with him over the network. We can only hope that O’Brien will be back on air soon, so he can continue to do what he does best ‘- make people laugh.
Hyman is a member of the class of 2012.