Conan: Defender of Tradition or Stuck in the Past?

Posted by: Patricia O'Connell on January 13, 2010

Conan O’Brien has made it clear he won’t surrender his post-nightly news Tonight Show slot to make way for Jan Leno. Part of Conan’s argument is that if you do The Tonight Show in any other time slot, it’s not true to the legacy of Johnny Carson and what made the show an institution. “But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction,” Conan said in part in a statement. And in a sense he’s right. But does it matter? Is the way things have been done the way things must continue to be done? It’s a question managers, workers, boards of directors, and shareholders have to ask all the time.

Before I go any further, let me be transparent about my own sympathies/leanings in the Conan/Jay/Dave/wars . I like Conan’s humor and think he’s really funny, but I don’t watch the show very often. I’m loyal to David Letterman (though I confess I don’t watch as much as I used to). Don’t find Jay funny, never did. And to my mind, Conan is being given the shaft by NBC, who is making it pretty obvious that it values Jay, despite the debacle that his 10 pm show has proven to be.

But now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, it seems to me that this whole mess is similar to ones that get played out in corporations all the time. You’ve got an employee who the company will stand behind no matter what, even though this last venture was a dismal failure, another, younger employee who is getting the message that he’s expendable, a bid to recoup after a failed attempt at innovation, and a serious threat to a decades-long tradition that has helped define the enterprise, as for years (the Johnny Carson years) late night TV, NBC, and The Tonight Show were all one thing.

And from a corporate/management perspective--not just for NBC and its owners, but for all stakeholders in an enterprise are--the questions that have to be answere are this: When is tradition inviolate? When do you have to take things apart and shake them up to create a new paradigm? When do you have to allow for creative destruction? The creative part usually occurs after the destruction, or rather the fruits of the creative part are apparent after the destruction, not during.

Here's a question for you: What should Conan do? Is it time to let tradition die to make room for something else?

Reader Comments

Patrick

January 13, 2010 1:43 PM

I think Conan should take the 12:05 slot at NBC. Leno won't last long at 11:35-12. Eventually Leno will go, and Conan will be back on at 11:35. However if Conan is really against this, which I don't blame him, he should go to Fox, and take Carson Daly to be his late show host. If no Fox, and he sticks with NBC, Carson Daly should go to ABC - go on after Kimmel.

Carson is has be screwed by NBC more so than anyone. He should of gotten the Fallon spot, but instead he didn't, and his budget keeps getting cut down to zip.

Cindy

January 13, 2010 2:24 PM

Conan should leave. He's been irrevocably devalued by NBC and slapped hard in the face. He should go to FOX and slap NBC silly with a revitalized show (please, please, without lead weight Andy Richter).
He should strike now while he's hot. If he sits at 12:05 waiting for Jay to fail, he himself will fail and nobody will want him.

m

January 13, 2010 2:30 PM

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Veracity

January 13, 2010 4:18 PM

I agree with Conan. And it is not backward thinking as you assert, it is reality. Take a look at a CLOCK/CALENDAR - if "THE TONIGHT SHOW" began at 12:05 AM it would be a NEW DAY. 12MIDNIGHT is THE END OF a day. MILITARY TIME says it best 00:05, instead of 23:35 PM, it would be THE NEW DAY SHOW, NOT THE TONIGHT SHOW. Add in the generational marketing NBC deployed to MAKE THE TIME SLOT SYNONYMOUS with THE SHOW and the marketing to marry the HOST with the BRAND. NBC from where I am sitting is DELUSIONAL and ACTING in BAD FAITH. And I think Jay Leno either is an egocentric greedmonger or a fool to do what he has to CONAN, THE TONIGHT SHOW, and the NBC affiliates.

vadim

January 13, 2010 4:19 PM

II watched Leno at 11:35 and at 10:00 I think that some parts such as inviting guest comedians where improvement over tonight show and car driving was bad. I preferred watch Leno over letterman at the same time slot. NBC now understand that as long as Conan will be at the same time slot as letterman the last will always win in ratings. Conan has a younger audience but for older people he will always look like idiot due to him making faces instead of telling funny things. As far as I concern, watch Conan for me as like watching at crippled person making fun: painful and sympathizing. He is so unappealing. 10:00 pm show has to be cut in half instead of dropped, because leno does not know how to fill 1 hour every day. Then it would be OK even not at Late night.

Owen

January 13, 2010 4:19 PM

For a response to Patrick a few comments up, you couldn't be more wrong about Carson Daly, he's horrible and his show is, always has, and always will be painful to watch.

As for Conan, he's treated this whole situation exactly as he should. He's been classy and hilarious and has taken much deserved shots at NBC. I think it's ironic that I'd bet anything Conan's shows right now are getting their best views since he's been hosting the show also deservingly so, as they've been absolutely hilarious as Conan just naturally is.

I think regardless of what happens from here on out Conan should definitely move to FOX and become the unbelievable success that he inevitably will become and really stick it to NBC and show them the complete idiots they really are.

M.

January 13, 2010 5:30 PM

Creative destruction is certainly important to reinvigorate companies and other assets. My question is: Do we have confidence that the suits doing the destruction are creative?

M

January 13, 2010 5:38 PM

Creative destruction is certainly important to reinvigorate companies and other assets.

My question is: Do we have confidence that the suits doing the destruction are creative?

Matt

January 13, 2010 6:36 PM

It is all subjective.

The new Tonight Show with Conan is not leading the ratings either.

NBC, Jay and Conan worked out Jay's retirement years ago. 2009 came and it was time to make the change. Conan is not the right fit. Jay was off the mark initially also. Jay made up the difference with year after year after of Guest host responsibilities. Until he became the permanent guest host. then finally after enough time he became the host when Carson finally retired officially.

Instead of easing people into the Conan format - In May you turned off the Leno show and in June you turned on Conan. I have not watched the Tonight show since.

Leno, should have retired. It is great he made a shot at the 10PM spot it didn't work. time to move on.

Paul

January 13, 2010 7:39 PM

No one has yet to have the class to fill the shoes of Johnny Carson and crew. It may never happen.

The world of entertainment is not the same personality-wise. You will never see a Bob Hope show up with his golf club just to hang around. You do not see banter with multiple entertainers.

You do not have the entertainers that can carry a variety show like Sammy Davis Jr. or Dean Martin or Carol Burnette.

The true talent has passed on and now all is left is reality shows.

Executives are always looking for the delivery system for the younger audiences.

Now, you must be promoting something, or yourself, or in politics. Me.Me.Me.

The art of entertainment has gone and so go the late night shows.

MacGuffin

January 13, 2010 8:54 PM

Whether he liked it or not (apparently not), Jay Leno agreed to step aside and allow Conan ascent to the Tonight Show in 2009. The rationale was that Jay didn't want a replay of the Leno/Letterman debacle on the 1990's and wanted to be the nice guy. Of course, now it is even worse than then and Leno has sullied the Tonight Show franchise forever.

Bottom Line: Leno should step aside or do a once weekly (i.e. Friday Night) Jay Leno show and allow Conan to keep the Tonight Show chair. Be your word, Jay.

Dan

January 13, 2010 9:28 PM

So many people have stated that they would watch Leno instead of Conan, yet where were his "fans" when his new show started?

Dude

January 13, 2010 9:40 PM

They're not letting go of tradition here. They're bringing the old guy back in his old time slot and his show will basically turn into what it was. They're not breaking the old traditions, they're back pedaling on someone who was the one breaking ground, Conan.

chirp

January 13, 2010 9:52 PM

You've misframed the question. Conan, most people seem to agree, is deeply committed to figuring out how to re-invent the show he loves -- how to re-imagine what happens DURING the show, that is. I don't think anyone is suggesting that people are no longer interested in watching some sort of interesting talk show after their late local news, and to think that the business challenge to be addressed is the time slot and not the content is to utterly completely and bizarrely fail to understand where innovation really enters into this situation.

charle

January 13, 2010 10:45 PM

Wow,,what to say..they are both great guys with big egos,
I do think there is bad blood from 2004, maybe Jay wasn't ready to retire in 2009...maybe Conan pushed a little hard..for fear he'd be left in Letterman's old position.(getting stuck forever following the Tonight show instead of taking over Carson's show which was taken over instead by frequent guest-hoster Leno.
But it needs to be win-win...let Leno do his 30 minutes against Letterman..until Leno's ready to retire and then Conan slide back into 11:30. Conan gets his big bucks regardless of what time he's in..and he doesn't have to start over somewhere else..I'll watch Conan anywhere anytime..because he makes me laugh out loud..
but Jay is pleasant and old school and also funny...
Hey maybe they should both quit...!! and go to other networks!!

Max

January 13, 2010 11:06 PM

I'll just sit back in my corner watching the always hilarious Stewart/Colbert power hour. Now that's some good late night.

TB

January 13, 2010 11:50 PM

Moving the tonight show would be a bad move, it is the second longest running television show ever and it had been in the 11:35 time slot for years, Conan is right not to want to move the show time. Conan is a great host and a credit to the history of the Tonight Show.

Cindy

January 13, 2010 11:52 PM

I think this whole thing started when Jay was renegotiating his contract years ago and made some noises about wanting to possibly retire at some point. He has a lawyer but not an agent - I don't think an agent would have let him say that. Muse about going somewhere else (strengthening a competitor station) but not about just dumping them. NBC, I think, mistook this as fact rather than a negotiating ploy and quickly sewed up Conan - a guy nobody wanted at 11:30 back then anyway. NBC should have waited rather than inserting its head into the noose. Now, 5 years later, it had a contract with Conan that it had to honor, giving Jay's very successful show the boot.

They overreacted back then. So now, they're up a tree without a paddle -- no matter which way they turn, they now will lose either Jay or Conan.

But Conan lost half of Jay's magnificent audience in a frighteningly short time. Nor can the blame be laid at Jay's feet for providing a weak lead-in to the news; Letterman flourished for years despite CBS's weak prime-time programming. And, as Seinfeld pointed out, nobody was being prohibited from watching Conan.

Conan just didn't "take" with this different audience. His humor, while hilarious, is narrow. And bringing back un-funny Andy Richter probably signed his death warrant right there. Lastly, as a recent article disclosed, Conan brushed off constructive criticism from his new NBC bosses, saying "I do what I do."

Well, he did what he did and it wasn't enough. NBC was going to have to pull the plug on him one way or the other.

Man up, Conan. It is what it is.

Joe

January 13, 2010 11:55 PM

i think conan should go to comedy central and have his show air right after stewart and colbert. I mean you Conan and hour long slot, and he doesn't have to change his show he can go back to how it was when he was after Leno. Also it would be a steal for Comedy Central because they would pretty much lock up a huge portion of the young people watching TV. That Lineup would be killer.

Andy

January 14, 2010 12:03 AM

I'm a 16 year old in high school havin to wake up at 6:00 every morning. Conan seriously is Soooo funny so I have to watch the show so I get about 5 1/2 hours of sleep but if it's moved to 12:05 I don't think I would get to see te tonight show. I say either stay at 11:35 or go to fox. Screw NBC.

Damian

January 14, 2010 12:09 AM

Jan Leno, really? Credibility means spelling stuff right.

mike

January 14, 2010 12:13 AM

NBC SUCKS

Team CoCo forever

rob

January 14, 2010 12:20 AM

If Jay's poor ratings are hurting the local news, causing the affiliates to complain to the network, causing the networks to take action, then moving Jay to 11:35 will spare the affiliates, but hurt The Tonight Show just as much, possibly more so. The smart move is to get rid of Jay Leno in the late night lineup. He is a big boy and knows how the business works. I think Jay should be making a show about cars, which is where he is most interesting. Perhaps he could use his automotive knowledge to create a show that could rival Top Gear for American driving fans.

Jason

January 14, 2010 12:55 AM

What NBC should do is move the News to 10pm and put Jay on at 1035-1135. It works out better because they will only go against Fox's local news and Jay will be going against the other local news which was just covered on NBC.

Jeff

January 14, 2010 1:45 AM

Jay Leno agreed to this in 2004. He didn't make a stink or anything,--in fact, he took a pay raise. The 11:35 time slot is everything. It would be humiliating for Conan to come on after Jay Leno and host "The Tonight Show." Conan is getting royally shafted. Not to mention the people who depend on him for a living and moved their families to California.

Judy

January 14, 2010 2:03 AM

The questions you ask are good and valid, but, within the context of employees in a corporation, there is also the question of promises and agreements made. Whether the Tonight Show should be moved or not is separate from whether NBC will honor agreements it made with Conan. And frankly, if you want to shake things up, why not do something more dramatic, like taking the Leno show and breaking it up into smaller bits then seeding it throughout the lineup schedule -- or try it out in different time slots.
Conan and Leno were both promised more time to prove themselves with their current time slots and formats. And why didn't NBC do a better analysis and anticipate affiliate reactions when they agreed to this whole mess in the first place? They tried to do everything "on the cheap" and now are trying to shaft the people who are most visible.

Scott

January 14, 2010 2:15 AM

Well, this thread is much kinder and more intelligent than the last one I read through. Good job adults and one professed grade-school student.

Watching the first episode of The Tonight Show with Conan I was screaming no, not Richter. But then he started to grow on me. I think they are a good team and funny together.

I don't care what time slot or network as long as they keep the entire staff together (we can't lose LaBamba!)and it shows on Hulu or some similar service. TV should be headed that way, anyway. We don't need networks, just production companies, shows, initial release dates and times and a comprehensive on-demand delivery system.

Sorry, I digress.

Hal

January 14, 2010 2:40 AM

The Tonight Show
Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Was not a "show", but an institution. I guess to a much lesser degree, and for a time perhaps Jay Leno. There was NO competition before Letterman headed to CBS. In the old days, as other have stated the quality of the guests was much higher.

Hell, now there are what, 7 late nite shows? And none of em are hosted as well as Tom Snyder did the Tomorrow show.

Jeff Zucker is an idiot, and HE should be the first "cancelled" by NBC. Leno should tell NBC "thanks but no thanks", and go to ABC. NBC should grovel to Conan to stay. But what do I know, I am just an old fart.

Scott

January 14, 2010 2:41 AM

Show lineups are meant to influence people’s viewing choice. In other words, certain people are sometimes not watching what they would most appreciate.

Mark Shuster

January 14, 2010 8:58 AM

Conan's Tonight Show is not funny; it's simply juvenile. Since Leno left the Tonight Show, I've been forced to watch a show I never liked to watch...Letterman's Late Show.

Giddy

January 14, 2010 9:56 AM

Im from Australia and we get to watch 5 late night shows (Leno, Conan, Letterman, Kimmel, Fallon)one after the other every afternoon on our cable TV. Without doubt Conan is by far the funniest. Leno is definately the next best and the rest just don't compare. I cannot possibly understand how Letterman could beat Conan in the ratings over there. I can only put it down to the fact that you have to choose which one to watch over there and so many close minded oldies just havent seen enough of Conan and continue to watch Letterman. I can see how this might happen if they tuned into one of Conans stupid sketches for 5 minutes then never tuned in again. As for NBC they should be sucking up to Conan big time as he could perhaps be the funniest man in the world. Leno is still quality entertainment and I think NBC should do as Jason suggested and move the news forward. They should not be worried about Conan losing ratings to Letterman because coming from someone that watches both shows everyday there is absolutely no comparison in entertainment quality. Conan will inevitably take over and if he swapped some of the stupid sketches for similair bits to Lenos (pre recorded stuff with other comedians etc.) then he would take Letterman off the air. I think when his times up Conan may be remembered as the best of all late night hosts.

cspark211

January 14, 2010 6:58 PM

I like Conan. Jay's okay. But what NBC is doing to Conan is not right. NBC has made up its mind. It will back Leno. Conan should take his show to Fox. There will come a day when NBC will regret letting Conan go.

Jeff

January 14, 2010 11:45 PM

I watch Letterman. CBS is lame but Dave pulls it off. It's my kind of humor. Dave always demands something from his guests. Ever see him with Zsa Zsa gabor at the drive throughs? "Having said that" (also a Curb fan) Conan is funny but I liked him at the late late night spot. He's like a guilty pleasure. NBC's offer to Conan was equivalent to a constructive dismissal. NBC wants Conan but only if Jay can fit in. Conan should bolt to FOX. As for Leno, I only watch if Dave has a bad guest on or if Leno has a good guest! In an ideal world I'd like things to go back to the way they were. I think everyone thought 2009 was a long time away. NoT!

Jito

January 18, 2010 7:48 PM

How ironic that Conan's ratings rose dramatically last week as many people tuned in to see what all the fuss was about, and to see what funny barbs Conan might offer up (and he didn't disappoint on that score). Maybe we can get Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno to come together at 11:35 p.m. and mud wrestle for the Tonight Show since mud seems to be an appropriate setting for this down and dirty late night tug of war. -- Cheers! Jito ("Ride in Style on a Private Jet": www.privatejetsalesandrental.com)

Chuck

January 19, 2010 1:02 AM

NBC sucks, completely agreed

Pregnancy Miracle

Mary

January 19, 2010 8:15 PM

AMEN to Paul & Matt. Late night has never been the same after Carson. Entertainers aren't the same. They plug their movies for a few minutes then run. The magic that was watching the likes of Bob Hope or George Gobel showing up and visiting with other guest stars is gone. I respect Conan's stance in leaving the Tonight Show in its rightful time slot. I love Jay, but you made a deal...honor it.

OXYGEN

March 28, 2010 9:17 AM

Moving the tonight show would be a bad move, it is the second longest running television show ever and it had been in the 11:35 time slot for years, Conan is right not to want to move the show time. Conan is a great host and a credit to the history of the Tonight Show.

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