In case you haven’t heard by now, NBC has decided to screw one of the best comedians of the last decade. Conan O’Brien, less than a year into his run as the host of The Tonight Show, is being bumped from 11:35 p.m. to 12 a.m., to make room for The Jay Leno Show. NBC’s experiment of moving Leno to primetime has not worked out for the network, not so much because of its lackluster ratings (which NBC always expected and planned to offset with lower costs) as its effect on 11 p.m. local news broadcasts. Advertisers, who NBC had evidently warned to expect lower ratings, were not unhappy, but local NBC affiliates generate a lot of revenue from ads during the local news. With Leno providing these broadcasts with an especially weak lead-in, affiliates complained, and some allegedly threatened to drop Leno.
From NBC’s perspective, this move does make sense: They can undo the Jay Leno mistake at 10, and hopefully revive their 11:30 slot. Conan has been losing to David Letterman in the ratings—a battle Leno always won—since June, even occasionally to Letterman repeats. Surely, NBC hopes that Leno can retake his lead in his old timeslot. Conan, meanwhile, will supposedly get bumped back to 12.
And while it’s hard to feel sympathy for NBC, a network defined by bad decisions recently (the Leno experiment only the most notable), or Jay Leno, a lame host who refuses to go gentle into that good night, the victim is O’Brien and, more generally, fans of comedy. O’Brien has been the most original voice on late-night TV for some time now, and The Tonight Show was both a bigger stage and, for him, a personal goal. Yes, his ratings had started off poorly, but they had started off poorly on Late Night as well, before flourishing three years into his run. Also, Conan was certainly not helped by Leno’s adverse effect on the local news, which also serves as Tonight’s lead.
It’s also important to note that Conan’s audience skews younger than Leno’s or Letterman’s. This probably hurt him in the short term—since his audience didn’t necessarily move up for his earlier hour—but would have helped over the long run, as the Tonight audience ages.
But now, because NBC wasn’t willing to let Leno go and can’t afford to keep him at 10, Conan is forced out of his time slot. So what are his options?
1) Stay at NBC. This is probably the most likely—and most disappointing—of all the options. Since the NBC Tonight Show contract says they can run the show at midnight (since they often have to bump it to then anyway, for sporting events and such), Conan’s show will still be The Tonight Show, and Conan’s name will still be listed with Johnny Carson’s. But it will still be a slap in the face. It will imply that Conan couldn’t cut it at 11:35 and had to get yanked around by the network.
2) Move to Another Network: Conan could get so fed up—and early reports characterized him as upset with the new deal—with his treatment by NBC that he decides to opt out of his contract and go somewhere else. I, for one, would respect his pride and gutsiness for doing this. Fox, which has no late night programming as of now, has shown interest. ABC probably makes the most sense creatively, although they have stated they are happy with their current lineup (although they weren’t so happy with it when they thought Leno was available last year). They could put Conan at 11:30 and move Jimmy Kimmel to 12:30, giving them a lineup that is fresher and more cutting edge than the competition and an audience that was accordingly younger. Kimmel wouldn’t like moving to 12:30, but come on—Kimmel has his moments, but Conan’s funnier.
3) The Hybrid Plan (John’s Choice): Stay and Try to Get Fired: This would be the most memorable and probably the funniest. Conan should accept NBC’s offer to move to 12, and then exact his revenge by being deliberately offensive. He should curse on the air and say controversial things that would warrant letters and complaints. He should insult interview subjects and the executives at NBC, essentially daring the network to fire him. This way NBC would have to honor Conan’s contract, while losing him at 12 a.m. Then, once fired, Conan can go to another network. Would this hurt his career, and likely cost him millions of dollars in a contract with another network? Sure, but Conan knows the value of committing to a joke. Is this going to happen? Absolutely not, but I can dream.