These days, watching NBC is like watching a lost hiker gnawing at his arm in a desperate attempt to stave off starvation. Moving Jay Leno to ten o'clock has done far more damage to the network than even the biggest skeptics probably expected, digging the deep hole NBC had in its primetime schedule even deeper. Now, as the network struggles to rectify the situation, Conan O'Brien has effectively received a slap in the face and a kick in the butt. It was a short-sighted response on the part of NBC executives, and O'Brien has made them pay with constant on-air heckling in the lead-up to his departure. (Like this masterpiece of schadenfreude.) The saga that led up to all of this makes for some good drama, but it also reveals how Conan O'Brien has already come out on top.
It did not take long for Jay Leno to prove himself unworthy of primetime. The moment he walked out onto his new set, it was apparent that The Jay Leno Show was essentially The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, plus some superficial gimmicks. The elimination of the time-tested hosts' desk in favor of two unadorned chairs could have signaled a greater focus on in-depth interviews. It did not. Stunt guests quickly wore thin, making the show feel even more tawdry than the typical late night plug-fest. Leno capitalized on the Kanye West "Imma let you finish" controversy by interviewing the rapper soon after the incident. Leno brought the man to tears by asking if he thought his recently deceased mother would approve of his actions. It was the sort of vicious moral condescension that any decent person would reserve for the likes of Roman Polanski, but Leno saw fit to utilize it for a person who merely displayed bad manners on MTV. It was pure, ratings-grabbing exploitation and there was no way it would work for long.
It is not that this sort of material is beneath prime time television, per se (sinking this low is the bread and butter of reality TV, after all). It, however, was not markedly different from what has been on late night TV for years – and what constitutes ratings success in late night is very different from what constitutes success in prime time. It does not take a programming executive to see how ill-conceived the whole show was.
The best that can be said about the plan is that NBC marshaled its forces and transitioned their existing late night block quite smoothly. Conan O'Brien took over Leno's old role as host of the venerable Tonight Show franchise and Jimmy Fallon became the host of O'Brien's old Late Night program. Both new shows launched months before Leno's did and competed with their rivals on CBS ably. This was no small feat as, historically, new late night hosts have taken months, if not years, to build a stable audience.
The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien took on a fairly familiar form – featuring O'Brien's manic, self-deprecating style with the glossy sheen of a bigger budget and a move to the west coast. The host eased into the bigger spotlight slowly, but surely. These days, he is just as wild and digressive as ever, but he shows a keener sense of pacing than he once did. O'Brien seems to understand that his new job is the opposite of Leno's: Putting on the best show he can without reinventing the wheel. (When I look back at the 2008 writers' strike, I cannot help but wonder if the two should have switched roles. Conan's efforts at putting on a writer-less show displayed far greater capacity for innovation than Leno's ever did.)
Since their new shows' debuts, however, ratings have bottomed out for both Leno and O'Brien. NBC has responded with panic. Their actions seem to contradict their previous rationale for withholding quick judgement – having once acknowledged that Leno would only flourish in the less competitive spring and summer seasons and that this would help O'Brien build his own audience. Obviously, not nearly enough time has passed for either of these things to happen and NBC has now assured that neither ever will.
Even if NBC had low expectations for Leno's performance, he obviously failed to live up to even those expectations because "Jay at 10" is as good as dead. Yet, they still insist on putting him front-and-center in their proposed new lineup, while punishing Conan, who has carefully settled in for a slow build. Leno would be moved back to the first half of The Tonight Show's old time slot at 11:35 and then The Tonight Show would air at 12:05. Frantically trying to recapture Leno's old popularity in a half-hour show would be a jarring move in a daypart that thrives on consistency. Pushing O'Brien back in order to accommodate the show would only ensure O'Brien's failure, as well; few struggling shows have ever been aided by a scheduling shuffle.
NBC has painted itself into a corner and, ironically, only the hosts themselves can save it. There is clearly only enough room for two hosts on NBC late night and, with Fallon enjoying success, it comes down to either Leno or O'Brien. This is where Conan O'Brien has shown his worth. He understands that moving the decades-old Tonight Show from its longtime home at 11:35 would be the beginning of the end of a television institution. Meanwhile, it is apparent that NBC is willing to keep Leno at all costs, and that Leno is willing to let NBC kick him around as much as they would like – a combination that hardly promises stability in the face of future ratings declines.
In short, there are few reasons for Conan to stay. There are plenty of networks that want him and would be perfectly happy with the ratings he already gets. At the moment, it may look like Conan is the one who has gotten the shaft, but being loosed from the grasp of the seemingly suicidal NBC management may prove to be quite the blessing.