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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?
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