It seems as if Conan has made his “personal choice” (see my blog entry below) and will not host a 12:05AM Tonight Show. And all there is left for him to do is work out an exit strategy. One blog reports that Conan was owed $60 million if he could not host the Tonight Show. He will probably settle for much less and he will need to get a release from the network for a reasonable time for him to start a competing show. There is no doubt that Conan has competing offers. Other sources also report that Conan is working out some help for his staffers who moved to LA with him just a few months ago. In this economy, they do need some protection from becoming part of the huge amount of collateral damage. Imagine trying to sell a house you bought 7 months ago or getting a new job as a comedy-show staffer in this environment? Jay already has a staff and a studio.
So what went wrong? This observer believes that both Jay and Conan are responsible for their own ratings failures. Let’s start with Jay. Jay tried to take his version of the “Tonight Show” and move it to primetime with a little more flash. Who is he kidding? Any student of television (except perhaps the brass of NBC?) knows that the homes using television are much higher in primetime and that the audience is different. Carrying over the same show is a recipe for failure. While some of the new bits were charming (the Dan Band) more often than not the new segments were pace killers. The “earn your plug” segment stopped the show in its tracks and were not amusing, they were almost like watching an old Gong Show segment, except the poor celebrity clearly was not having as much fun as a Gong Show contestant. And the electric car segment was cute a time or two, but it was also so clearly a show-stopper that when Arnold Schwartzenegger was on, they just had him blow up the car al la the Terminator. This observer thinks that the old Johnny Carson show would have appealed to a broader audience and had higher ratings in primetime. Johnny Carson had something for everyone; he was almost a variety show – depending on the night, he did some monologue, brought out a guest, brought out an animal act, brought out a comedian (notice Jay rarely had on a “competing comedian telling jokes), and ended with a big musical act. Even if that is not the tastes of the audience in 2010, it is an example of a much broader-appealing show that if reconceived in 2010 might be broad enough to attract more of the pre-news audience.
And what about Conan’s Tonight Show? Same exact issue, he tried to move from a place where he had an audience that loved him to a new place without changing the show. Dick Ebersol, a legend himself in late night (Saturday Night Live) stated in an inerview in the New York Times that he tried to get Conan to broaden his show’s appeal ( http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/15/business/media/15conan.html). although Mr. Ebersol defends Jay, my opinion is that Jay committed the same sin. The ratings of both shows tell the same story. Audience appeal is measurable by the ratings every day in timeparts of 15 minutes or less (so a show can tell if a single segment isn’t working!) and neither show could find the right mix to bring in the audience.
And what were the NBC brass thinking? The last time there was a host change on the Tonight Show (Carson to Leno) it took over a year before it found its audience with the famous Hugh Grant interview that finally pulled it ahead of Letterman in the ratings. From this perch in middle-America, it appears as if they did not have plans for how to make the long-haul to success. NBC took years to build up its primetime success in the 1980’s and 1990’s and years to lose it; if there is any organization that should, in theory, understand long-term audience development, it should be ?NBC.
What next for Conan? Both Jay Leno and David Letterman are absolute masters of the late-night format. They are both are superb comedians. If Conan tries to compete directly with a re-engineered Jay-vs-David late-night landscape, it will be a difficult road for him. Just my opinion.