Tuesday, January 26, 2010

I HAD A DREAM... and it was to host The Tonight Show

The mess with NBC has turned into a real loser for the network, viewers, affiliates, but most of all, Conan O'Brien, who did the least to hurt himself, but is the one being hurt the most -- with apologies to all of his staffers who followed him to California, and may now be out of a job.

Then again, maybe it is Conan who is hurting Conan.

With all of the finger pointing going on -- in case you haven't noticed -- the one bit of blame that has not been placed is Conan's decision to abandon the Tonight Show.

Abandon? That's not too strong of a word, isn't it?

It is O'Brien's choice to leave the show that he took over 7 months ago. Conan and his writers and drummer and quirky trombone player could all just keep on doing exactly the same thing they have been doing, and doing it at the same time every night. The only difference would be the time that the show is aired to the nation, a whopping 30 minutes after the current time.

But this argument ignores the fact of what the Tonight Show really is, and we think we need a sports analogy to make sense of it.

Football fans might remember that once upon a time, there was an NFL game that was played and broadcast on Sunday nights, and one on Monday nights. That's right. This, in contrast to the more recent events which have the NFL playing and broadcasting a game on Sunday nights, and one on Monday nights.

So what's the difference?

If you are very old, say, 12 years older or more, you probably can remember when ABC's Monday Night Football (using capital letters, mind you) was THE game of the week. It got the best time slot, it got network broadcasting, it got the choice of the best games, it got the most hype, it got it's own pre-game show (oft times on ESPN), and it got the best announcers.

It was a brand.

It was an event.

It was the game on which all players wanted to appear, and all young sports announcers wanted to announce.

It was basically The Tonight Show of football.

Suddenly, though, this all changed 4 seasons ago. The Game of The Week was now that Sunday Night Game. Starting in 2006, the Sunday night game was on network television (moved to NBC from ESPN). The Sunday night game had the flex scheduling for the best matchups. The Sunday night game got the dedicated pre-game show, got the most
eyeballs, and oh yeah, it got...

....the best announcers.

First, it was John Madden who jumped ship, agreeing to move from the ABC Monday night broadcast, as it was preparing to move from ABC network to ESPN on cable, to the new NBC-aired Sunday night game, just as the Sunday game was being shifted from ESPN cable to NBC network.

Madden was the latter-day Conan, moving from a spot on the secondary game (ESPN's Monday Night Football) to the top game of the week (NBC's Sunday Night Football). This may contrast O'Brien's earlier move, which was from the minor league "Late Night" show to the top billing at the 11:35pm slot. Madden wanted to stay with the
signature football game of the week, and that game was now broadcast somewhere else.

Al Michaels, apparently feeling left behind to do his games on (yuck!) cable, managed to get out of his contract with ABC/ESPN. Michaels underscored Madden's decision by getting traded to NBC in exchange for a cartoon character, just so he could be on the flagship NFL broadcast.

SIDEBAR: The deal for Al Michaels included NBC granting ABC/Disney the rights to some Ryder Cup broadcasts, additional Olympic footage for ESPN, and the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a character created by Walt Disney, the rights to which were owned by NBC's parent company.

And then there is Conan, who probably has not gotten the blame he deserved for not agreeing to just keep doing The Tonight Show, whether it was broadcast at 11:35pm or 12:05am, or 4:00am in the morning.

But Conan seems to be looking past the words on the banner at the top of the show. Yes, "The Tonight Show" would still exist in name, much like Monday Night Football still exists on many televisions (except those that can't get cable, which is much of the point here).

Conan seems to recognize that a television talk/entertainment show which follows another talk/entertainment program is not THE TONIGHT SHOW, but rather, a talk/entertainment show which airs after the most important late night time slot. Think about the place held by the Late Night show, which has been hosted by Dave Letterman, O'Brien, and Jimmy Fallon. No matter how good a show this was (and Conan's version was clearly better than Jay's Tonight Show for much of their comparable run), the Late Night program simply would never, could never, be the flagship program that was represented by the 11:35pm time slot. Late Night was minor league; The Tonight Show was the majors.

Let's extend the football analogy a little further. Imagine 5 years ago, if the ABC Monday Night Football game were moved to 12:05am to follow another football game on ABC or another network, at 9:00pm. The 9:00pm game would be called "The Early Evening Football Game." The Early Game got the best matchups and the most viewers. That would leave Monday Night Football as a game, but not THE game. Wouldn't the announcers want to leave MNF to move to The Early Game?

It isn't the name Monday Night Football that has the glitter, but rather, the time slot and the other elements that make it the game of the week.

As for Conan, it is a little hard to grasp what is going on, and what he is thinking, without using the football analogy. Conan has said that moving The Tonight Show to a later time (which we interpret as meaning "after another show has already preceded us") would destroy the franchise, and he did not want to be a part of that. Using our football example, we would have to ask, is Monday Night Football really Monday Night Football anymore? After all, there was a Sunday night game before the 2006 switch to NBC. There was a Monday Night game before the Monday night switch to ESPN. And there is still a Sunday and Monday night game.

So with Sunday and Monday games still on the television, is the really a difference between the broadcasts? Well, according to pretty much everyone that counts, and by that, we mean the NFL, the answer is yes. The NFL managed to completely change the minds of everyone who doesn't count, and by that, we mean the fans. They changed our minds that Football Night In America was now on Sundays.

The shame in all of this is that NBC made a mistake, Leno failed, but Conan is the one getting screwed. In a way, Leno is being rewarded for failing. He gets to go back to the game of the week. And this after probably doing part of the damage to Conan. I can't help but think that part of the reason The Tonight Show's ratings are down since O'Brien took over is because Leno could not deliver the audience to carry over to the late local news, and thus failed to carry the residual audience to 11:35pm.

There is no sports analogy for that.

Then again, may Leno knew what he was doing. Maybe he tanked his 10:00pm show, knowing he would get to slide back into 11:35pm. Maybe Leno's lawyers already had a deal in place to move Jay back to 11:35pm if his show bombed.

Whatever happened, Conan fell on the sword, so The Tonight Show could be saved as the historic franchise that it is. I'm not certain many sports broadcasters would do the same.

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