I have to weigh in on the current fiasco over the Tonight Show in the US.
Here’s what I wrote on TMZ‘s site (under the handle The Old Curmudgeon):
177. As I recall, five years ago NBC were concerned over rumors that Conan was being wooed by Fox. Their announcement of Jay’s “retirement” followed by the appointment of Conan to fill some pretty big shoes (too big, as it turns out), set the stage.
The current mess is partly a result of that decision, partly a result of the complaints by the affiliates, but mostly because the Tonight Show essentially disappeared, to be replaced by a relocated Late Night With Conan, lock, stock and barrel – even the theme tune wasn’t new.
Jay was the recipient of the shaft, if anyone was, but he took it like the trooper he is – and a bankable trooper, let’s not forget. He gave Conan space to get under way, his new show performed as expected, and Jay cannot be held responsible for the complaints of the affiliates, out of which the current fiasco began.
Conan’s petulant refusal to move his show just 25 minutes, followed by his unprofessional behavior from then on, basically sealed the deal. He painted himself into a corner – maybe deliberately. We’ll probably have to wait for someone’s memoirs to discover exactly why he’s done what he has.
Jimmy Fallon, in his commentary, demonstrated a level of class that we should have been seeing from Conan. As did Jay. I’ve watched the performances of both Jay and Conan, and of the two, Jay comes off as the seasoned professional, whereas Conan is clearly still 2 years old. Which is fine if your demographic is also 2 years old. And it was, when his show aired in its old time slot.
But the new demographics associated with the various shows were clearly different – Conan appealing to the same demographic as “American Pie”, Jay to the older, more sophisticated audience that has been the mainstay of the Tonight Show for decades. The two can’t be interchanged.
If it is indeed true that Jay will return to host the real Tonight Show, then I’m not particularly bothered what happens to Conan. Fox can have him. They clearly should have been allowed to have him five years ago…
Posted at 12:13PM on Jan 16th 2010 by Old Curmudgeon
Jay subsequently confirmed most of my recollections during one of his shows, in which he detailed more about the exchanges that had gone on at NBC.
Then David Letterman – a man whose trustworthiness has recently been amply demonstrated – began throwing knives. He’s never been high in my estimation, but his location is now well below ground. Long ago he ceased to have any relevance IMHO.
And then Rosie O’Donnell behaved sooo badly that at first I thought she was doing some kind of shtick. I was behind her 100% with her issues with Donald Trump (a man who ranks lower in my estimation than even Letterman), but why on earth she chose to lambast Jay I will never understand. She was way, way out of line – not to mention totally wrong in her description of Jay’s behavior.
For me, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. In this context, I judged Jay’s level of class by one simple fact: he arranged with sponsors to do a series of shows for people who were down on their luck, in areas of the country hardest hit by the recession.
In doing those, he clearly demonstrated his rapport with the common man.
I don’t recall Conan, O’Donnell or Letterman doing anything of that caliber and for me that speaks volumes.
If, in the fullness of time, Jay gets back into harness with the Tonight Show and re-establishes himself, some of the wrong perpetrated against him will have been righted.
As for Conan, my less than humble opinion is that his ego outgrew his ability to deliver and he may well have destroyed his career – look at Howard Stern as a case in point; pushed into relative obscurity by nothing more than behaving like a 2 year old at exactly the wrong time.
(IMHO Conan’s move from Late Night to the Tonight Show is almost a case of the Peter Principle in action, except that it’s not Conan’s competence that’s called into question – he’s clearly well able to host his own show and despite a shakey start has done so – with occasional gaffes such as offending Quebec and Newark – for almost a dozen years.)
I feel sorriest for Conan’s staff; they followed him faithfully into this mess – one of his own creation – and are now going to be stuck unless NBC can be blackmailed into paying persuaded to pay all of them some hefty redundancy to help them perhaps go back east and re-establish themselves, if they can.
Thinking about this situation, it occurs to me that Conan must have been aware that his ratings were not good. He’d lost half his audience (the subsequent ranting and raving by the more vociferous of them can’t hide the fact that so many deserted him when he moved to the Tonight Show slot) and he had to have been aware that this is a major blow.
He would have expected to not only keep his own audience but also acquire a proportion of those used to watching during the Tonight Show slot. The fact that he slid back so far must have been the writing on the wall, and he must have been aware of this. Ratings are life-blood in the industry and everyone watches them like a hawk.
So, someone in that position has a choice. They can struggle to regain what should never have been lost (a major gamble, since failure would have all the more impact) OR… they can take any issue that crops up – such as the affiliates’ objections to the Jay Leno Show, and the subsequent attempt by NBC to resolve some of the issues – and refuse point blank to play ball, framing it as a refusal to compromise the show.
That way, it’s possible to frame it any number of ways and still be seen by the majority (of those who don’t think any deeper) in a positive light.
At some point, my guess is that Conan received some advice about not painting himself irreversibly into a corner, which explains his mollifying comments on the last show, about how much gratitude he has to NBC. In this industry you are always best advised to leave all doors open all the time, even if they’re only just ajar.
Some have characterized Jay’s transition back to the Tonight Show as if Jay had demanded that Conan be removed. I think they forget the timeline. NBC execs responded to the affiliates’ complaints by telling Jay that his show was to be rescheduled and asking Conan if he would consider moving back half an hour to give Jay a slot.
It was at that point that Conan made his play. As both Jimmy Fallon and Jay have pointed out, they’re employees and if NBC says “go there”, you do what you’re told. Only Conan was given the option to refuse, and he took it. Maybe NBC even collaborated with Conan to help him avoid losing face; we may never know.
But it is odd that only Conan refused to play ball – the one person who was failing (remember that NBC officially stated that Jay’s show had done as expected and it was only the affiliates’ complaints that triggered the need for change – not Jay demanding his old job back). Personally, I can’t see how Conan could have refused NBC’s instruction to move, but it was never framed as that; it was always framed as a request.
Time will tell. The knives are out for Jay, that’s for sure. I have never seen so many mean and nasty comments from some quarters, and unjustifiably so. I can only hope that those comments – and actions (such as Rosie O’Donnell’s cancellation of her appearance on Jay’s show) – eventually come back to haunt the perpetrators.