Is it my imagination, or has Conan O’Brien gotten sharper, edgier, friskier — funnier — than he’s been in a long time? His current quasi-limbo as the possibly/probably exiting host of NBC’s ”The Tonight Show” has been good for him emotionally and professionally. Like a team mathematically eliminated from the playoffs but game for the game just the same, O’Brien in the last week or so has been loose, a man with nothing to lose, firing on all comedic cylinders, wielding his offbeat comedic style with an abandon and daring that’s lately pushed the envelope on why late-night programming is on late at night in the first place.
In the last week, in his monologues and with his guests as sometimes unwitting foils, O’Brien has alluded to drive-by shootings, deviant sexual practices and illegal drugs. And then he started talking about Jay Leno, his elder comedic counterpart and nemesis for control of “The Tonight Show,” the same show in the same time slot Leno held down for 17 years. His spirited jabs at Leno, and those taken on his behalf by ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman at CBS, have made for some of late-night’s snarkiest moments, and some of its most memorable.
None of which matters a whit to los jefes at NBC, who are reportedly at or near an agreement to give O’Brien his walking papers and 30 million other papers, called dollars. This is being done to ease the way for the return of Leno to his old perch as host of “The Tonight Show,” with Leno thus retiring his unwatched and underfunny prime-time experiment, “The Jay Leno Show.”
"By the time you see this, I'll be halfway to Rio in an NBC traffic helicopter," O’Brien said in his Friday monologue.
Having apparently thrown Conan from the show, NBC is opening the door to a challenge from a dangerous free agent, someone who knows his way around late-night comedy at least as well as Leno does. Someone who knows his way around a younger, edgier demographic of viewers better than Leno does.
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Listen … you can hear the execs’ hungry drool dripping onto the Berber carpet at Fox right now. And count on it: Once Conan has ambled up to the NBC’s cashier’s window for the last time, Fox will be first to step up to the plate and offer him … a new cashier. The Fox television empire has lately been in something of a reinvention mode. You’ve gotta believe if Fox ponied up X dollars for a relatively untried presence like Sarah Palin, they’ll leap at the chance to lock up the talents of an innovator and a known quantity in late-night television.
Fox would be exhibiting a demographic shrewdness that Jay Leno can’t top: Conan appeals to the 18-to-49 demographic coveted by advertisers, a cohort used to set advertising rates and to define and sharpen their perceptions about the buying public.
Look at the populist support that’s been generated by viewers eager to see O’Brien prevail. At one recent taping, members of the audience wore TEAM CONAN T-shirts. Someone generated an I’m With Coco” image that recalls a campaign poster from the 1930’s. It’s not just grassroots, it’s viral grassroots. Leno’s audience skews older; it’s more to the liking of people with hair as gray as Leno’s is. Like it or not, that matters to advertisers. And to the viewer ratings the network lives and dies by.
And ratings are a funny thing. They have a way of vanishing or showing up at the most inopportune time. Irony of ironies: The O’Brien deathwatch has garnered ratings that are better than they’ve been in a while. “With his jabs at NBC network executives apparently resonating in a country filled with the unemployed, viewership has soared,” The Associated Press reported Sunday.
“’Tonight" ratings Friday were 50 percent higher than they've been this season, and O'Brien beat CBS' Letterman, according to a preliminary Nielsen Co. estimate based on large markets,” The AP said. “In the 18-to-49-year-old demographic that NBC relies on to set advertising prices, O'Brien even beat Leno's prime-time show.”
It all points to how, apparently, patience is not a virtue for NBC. Writing on Digg, C010rb1lndusa understood the missed opportunity: “The worst part about the situation is that the NBC executives fail to remember history. Conan's original late night show struggled to gain an audience early in its production. But when viewers got used to his unconventional humor, he was a big hit, and at 12:30 at night no less. Yet they don't even give Conan a year to get comfortable with mainstream America.”
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It went underreported in the heat of the LenoBrien War, but in a news story related to the upcoming Vancouver Olympic Games, Jeff Immelt, the chairman of General Electric (NBC’s parent company), said recently that — before the torch even shows up in Vancouver, before viewer one tunes in to watch the luge run — NBC already expects to lose “a couple hundred million bucks” on the Games it paid more than $800 million to broadcast over “the networks of NBC.”
Soft ad sales were blamed, as well as the still-recovering economy. But whatever the reasoning for that forecast, it can’t inspire confidence when a company announces it plans to lose money on producing its shiny new product before that shiny new product is even out the factory door.
Thus sayeth the suits at NBC. That prediction may be evidence of a misstep at the Peacock. We will be witnesses to another one when Conan O’Brien turns in his key to the studio soundstage and drives off the NBC lot, probably bound for Foxier pastures.
Image credits: O'Brien: © 2009 NBC/Conaco. Leno: © 2009 NBC/Big Dog Productions. Coco image: Via HuffPost.