Proposed 'Tonight Show' changes a disappointment to NBC lineup

Proposed 'Tonight Show' changes a disappointment to NBC lineup
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH CONAN O'BRIEN -- Episode 124 -- Pictured: (l-r) Snuggles, Andy Richter, Mike Tyson, Conan O'Brien, Max Weinberg -- NBC Photo: Paul Drinkwater

Late night talk show host Conan O’Brien released a statement Tuesday saying that he would not host “The Tonight Show” during a 12:05 a.m. timeslot behind Jay Leno. It is funny how the only person with some sense in the NBC late night shuffle is the one getting the boot.

O’Brien is no stranger to NBC executives looming over his show. The latest quagmire between him and the network is certainly not his first. When he started on “Late Night,” the show was constantly under the threat of cancellation. With time, O’Brien established a style that was absurdist yet accessible. “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” ran for 16 years and looked like the perfect warm-up to the biggest gig post-primetime, “The Tonight Show.” Now that O’Brien has become a star, his decision not to host any show on NBC called “The Tonight Show” that airs at any other time other than 11:35 p.m. is both the smart choice and his only choice.

Many O’Brien fans are quick to blame Jay Leno for the current mess at NBC, but that is just unfair. Leno clearly left his post at 11:35 before he actually intended. It is certainly not Leno’s fault that NBC thought he should move aside, and, in a later decision, have a 10 p.m. show five nights a week. NBC is responsible. Leno’s ratings sagged too much to keep affiliates happy, and in turn, hurt O’Brien’s lead-in (which would have been boosted with a highly-rated drama in the 10 p.m. slot).

The call by NBC to move Leno back to 11:35 means that if O’Brien had decided to stay, it would be a huge slap in the face. To move a half-hour back would be a demotion — a sign of failure on O’Brien’s part that would be unfair, but very real. The likely scenario now is that Leno will return to his old stomping ground and continue his old schtick of headlines and “Jay-Walking.” In all likelihood, Leno will get NBC back on top in the late night ratings.

Now there is the inevitable question of where Conan should move. There have been rumors that he will head to FOX where Conan would be able to compete directly with Leno and Letterman. This makes the most sense because the network is without a weeknight late night talk show host and he would likely have more freedom to do what he wants than if he stayed with NBC. The problem with this is that FOX has a bad track record with late night hosts like Joan Rivers and Chevy Chase. Neither of them, however, have had the experience that O’Brien brings to the table.

The other option that has been floating around is that O’Brien can make the move to cable. For comedy fans, the idea that there could be a two-hour block of “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” and then O’Brien would make for comedy nirvana. Unfortunately, cable seems to be an incredibly unlikely destination since the pay and audience would be significantly less than a spot on a major network.

Wherever O’Brien lands, he will hopefully get more respect than he received while he was a member of the NBC family. In his statement announcing he would not host a 12:05 a.m. “Tonight Show,” O’Brien displayed not only his intelligence, but his class. Besides the damage it would do to his image, O’Brien displayed concern for Jimmy Fallon, the new host of “Late Night,” who would have had to start a half-hour later if O’Brien was to stay. This acknowledgement of Fallon and his program displays a respect that we have not seen from Leno.

When all is said and done, the people who will look the worst are the people who deserve it: the NBC executives. Things will go back to how they were for a while until the redheaded giant finds a new home. Once O’Brien finds a place that accepts him for all his wackiness and absurdity, he will once again string-dance his way to the top of late night television.

You can reach this staff writer at slindauer@theeagleonline.com.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Team Conan.

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