“Stewie: You know, it is so fashionable to take a shot at Jay Leno. Look, the fact is the man is out there every bloody night with fresh material and he’s charming.” – Family Guy
I don’t quite share Stewie’s enthusiasm, but I do believe that the piling on of Jay Leno and exaltation of Conan O’Brian has been excessive. In 2004, NBC basically pressured Leno into agreeing to a deal where he would leave the Tonight Show in five years. Leno was #1 in his time-slot at 11:35, had been #1 for a decade and stayed at #1 for the five years after that deal was signed. If anyone was disrespected in this whole process, it’s been Jay Leno. If NBC had stuck to the maxim, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” they never would have found themselves in this place. Yeah, Conan might have left for another network, but that’s exactly what going to happen now and they could have spared the months of embarrassing ratings and the PR hit NBC has taken as the #4 network.
How many people posting about being on “Team Conan” on Twitter were actually watching his show before this controversy started? Based on his ratings, not many. People liked Conan because he had edgy bits like Masturbating Bear, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and the Pimpbot 5000, but Conan was put into awkward position at 11:35 where he had to tone his act down and try to become more mainstream. The older audience who didn’t like Conan was never going to like him no matter what he did and his core audience would rather watch Stephen Colbert or other programming that don’t have to appeal to a broad demographic.
Conan decided that he would rather leave NBC than be pushed back a half hour. In his statement, he made it look like he trying to defend “the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting” that would be compromised if it started at 12:05. But in reality, this was about Conan feeling like he was getting dissed and deciding that he wasn’t going to go along with it. I can respect a man for taking a stand, but I get annoyed when he gives fake, altruistic reasons for it. I watched Conan’s finale on Friday and he was funny, sincere and heartfelt. In short, the exact opposite of the bitter pettiness he had demonstrated up to that point.
UPDATE: Bill Carter of the New York Times makes my point for me.