This week, the planets are cosmically and comically aligned: Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and David Letterman, the Ghosts of The Tonight Show past, present and passed-over, will compete against each other in the same time slot for the first time.
The history is rich and their television network of origin, NBC, has inflicted considerable damage unto all three of them. This week marks the debut of O’Brien’s new talk show Conan on TBS, a little more than nine months since he was as good as sacked as host of The Tonight Show.
As news spread this past January that Conan would be replaced by Leno as host of The Tonight Show, a mere six months after he took over from him, Conan supporters took to the internet to demonstrate their rage. #TeamCoco was a trending topic on Twitter for weeks. A fan created the now iconic “I’m with Coco” stencil portrait — a nice spoof of the “Hope” ones made for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Supporters draped Conan in the flag and condemned NBC and Leno for taking away Conan’s dream job. What we had here were the makings of an intricate social movement.
The full story is not as simple as the one Team Coco told — that Mr. Leno stole the show from Mr. O’Brien, hardly giving the guy a chance. The real story starts in 2004, as outlined in Bill Carter’s new book The War for Late Night, a sequel to the 1994 best-seller The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, & The Network Battle for the Night. When Jay Leno was in his prime as host of The Tonight Show, and regularly beating The Late Show with David Letterman on CBS in the ratings, Conan (host of Late Night, which followed Tonight) pressured NBC into assuring him Tonight. NBC, in 2004, acceded to Conan’s demands, for fear of losing him to a rival network. NBC announced its plan for Leno to hand off The Tonight Show to Conan in 2009, after 17 years hosting the program.
Of course, the transition did not work according to plan. It was designed to prevent the acrimony that ensued after Johnny Carson retired, when NBC passed over Letterman for Leno and Letterman fled to CBS and launched his rival program. What the network didn’t realize was that by creating this “orderly” succession five years in advance, it was creating the exact situation it was determined to avoid. By the time Leno approached the end of his contract, he had received offers from rival networks. Jay Leno wasn’t ready to retire from television at 59, and NBC appeased him by giving him a variety show to air at 10 p.m. weekdays.
The rest is history. The Jay Leno Show tanked at 10, Conan fell to Letterman in the ratings and NBC decided to cancel The Jay Leno Show. Its solution was to install Jay at 11:35 p.m., where he would perform an abbreviated version of his variety show until 12:05 a.m. The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien would then follow. Conan refused, quit, and left to start a competing show at TBS. He feared that starting Tonight the next day would no longer make it The Tonight Show.
Were the actions of the National Broadcasting Company as evil as Conan’s camp made it seem? The real point at issue was the declining ratings in the time period between 11:35 p.m. and12:35 a.m. Previously, Jay Leno had been victorious. Why yank the experienced performer at the height of his dominance? In 2004, Conan should not have requested the Tonight gig before Jay was ready to relinquish it. Although Conan was talented, he pushed for it too soon, and now blames Leno for sticking around, as if he were the Brett Favre of comedy. But successful people have a right to keep their jobs. Conan essentially forced Leno out of his position, couldn’t perform as well and now blames NBC and Leno for ruining his gig. It shouldn’t have been his gig in the first place. Had NBC not acceded to Conan’s demands in 2004, and told him he could continue hosting his program at 12:35 a.m. after Leno or try his luck elsewhere, perhaps Conan would have stayed on in the later time slot and waited a bit longer.
It is unbelievable that our generation reveres the man who forces a promotion for himself, doesn’t succeed as well as his predecessor and then cries foul when the predecessor is asked back. Conan’s departure had all to do with pride, and he angrily speaks about Leno and NBC as if they took his “dream” away. But The Tonight Show is a business, and NBC’s mismanagement will be discussed in business school case analyses for years to come. It was similar to the time Coca Cola replaced its brilliant and highly successful formula with “New Coke,” and replaced it with the original Coca Cola formula when it bombed.
I will be watching Conan this week. I think moving to TBS is a brilliant move, in the same spirit as Letterman’s move to CBS in 1993 after he was passed over for Leno. Conan’s new gig will be without the pressures of maintaining the legacy of The Tonight Show, and he will reach the college-aged audience he is popular with, after they’re done watching reruns of Family Guy and The Office. He’s off on his own now, and I’m excited to follow him at 11 p.m. At least until 11:35, when I will be switching over to Dave. Now there’s a guy who was really screwed over. If only the Internet existed back in 1993 … #TeamDave