Thursday, January 14, 2010
I'm With Coco: A Casualty of Ratings
It seems that only yesterday Conan launched his reign of The Tonight Show by running across the United States from New York to Los Angeles. And it was just the other day that he held a real focus group disguised as an older gentleman who was moderating it to get people's real opinions of him. Yet that honeymoon period is over.
Being a long-time Late Night with Conan O'Brien viewer, I could not have been happier with the decision made by NBC to promote him in June. Now, after only seven short months, they are stabbing him in the back.
The troubles first started when in September, they decided to bring Jay Leno out of "retirement" and into a new variety show called the Jay Leno Show that once again preceded Conan's show. This split the viewers of NBC because by the time the Tonight Show came around, people already had their fill of monologues and interviews. This is like having two presidential candidates from the same party. It splits the votes.
The ratings were obviously low for Jay's new show (as he is corny and dated). As for the Tonight Show, NBC panicked because for the first time in years, David Letterman's show was beating the Tonight Show. It wasn't the quality of the show that was keeping the ratings down, it was just the fact that when you change a host you initially lose viewers. The viewers have to be wooed again. The new host has to win them over. Leno got the chance to do that when Johnny Carson gave him the show, as his ratings dropped initially. Conan was never given this chance. So, after only seven months, they decided to bump Conan's Tonight Show to 12:05 and give Leno his old time slot back. Conan said in his official statement (which is a great, short, hilarious read that everyone should check out), "It was my mistaken belief that, like my predecessor, I would have the benefit of some time and, just as important, some degree of ratings support from the prime-time schedule. Building a lasting audience at 11:30 is impossible without both."
Conan also said in that statement that he "will not participate in what I honestly believe is it's [The Tonight Show's] destruction.". This is a bold statement in show business. He is not holding out for more money. Conan leaving is in fact what some NBC executives want so that they can easily give Jay his show back. He is simply standing up for what he believes in. He is putting his job on the line to save the show's integrity that goes beyond Leno or Conan. And he is getting the raw end of the deal.
Over the past week Conan has been very open about his frustrations with the network. He compares his relationship with NBC as a lifetime original movie about a man in an abusive relationship with his network. He has openly criticized NBC's executives and decisions. He is burning a lot of bridges along the way with the network, but he is speaking his mind. In short, he has balls. The best part about his criticisms of NBC is that they are not only sadly true, but he makes them the butt of his jokes. And some hilarious jokes have come out of the networks expense. Conan's relationship with NBC is permanently damaged and no money or deals could completely heal this wound. The trust has been lost.
So here we are, on the verge of losing the funniest talk show host out there. The internet has almost unanimously gathered behind Conan. The President of the United States has gone on record backing Conan. Conan passed up many much more "lucrative offers"(his statement) in the past 6 years when he signed the contract for the show. This is because it was Conan's childhood dream to fill Johnny Carson's shoes. This was his dream job. The tragedy in all this lies in the fact that he got to taste his dream only to have it be stripped away from him. He joked last Wednesday: "Kids, you can do anything you want in life...unless Jay Leno wants to do that too." On top of all that, most of the staff uprooted their families in New York to move to LA and do the show.
To show more of Conan's true colors, in last night's show he used a whole segment (this is a big deal because they are most likely down to their last shows) to emphasize how little the feud actually matters and that there are people out there with real problems. He spoke on the earthquake in Haiti and offered a way to help. In his official statement Conan also said, "In the last few days, I’ve been getting a lot of sympathy calls, and I want to start by making it clear that no one should waste a second feeling sorry for me. For 17 years, I’ve been getting paid to do what I love most and, in a world with real problems, I’ve been absurdly lucky."
I don't have a solution. I am just a speculator with no answers. There is no win. Conan will most likely not stay on NBC and will probably move to a different network. This may lead to more network meddling. Things can't go back to how they were. It was a show killed in it's infancy. NBC spent more time building the studio than using it.
Highlights of the past week have been definitely the monologues but please watch the interview with Ricky Gervais on Hulu. It is hilarious and a great sum up of how they have been approaching these last few episodes. Conan said at another point that he has "nothing to lose" anymore and can now really freely do the show. It's sad, but true.
My hat is off to you Conan O'Brien, a casualty of ratings like many other great things (an Arrested Development plug fits great here). Your writing in SNL and the Simpsons (for what many consider the 'glory years' of the show) and your hilarious and original way of hosting a show with a trademark silliness that no one can duplicate has changed television forever.
O Captain, My Captain, thank you for the last 17 years and amazing bits such as "In The Year 2000 (3000 for the Tonight Show)", your amazing adventures outside the studio, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, "secrets", your Finland trip (to meet the president that you honestly helped elect), and the "Walker Texas Ranger Lever". Thank you for placing the joke in front of your own physical safety and well being (we all remember your concussion). Thank you for being original and genuine every night. Thank you for the distinct brand of comedy that you have inspired and invented. A personal thank you for always being there to cheer me up at the end of the many hard days I have had. Thank you, Conan. Even if this is your last hurrah, you will never be forgotten.
And Jay, Johnny Carson is rolling over in his grave.