Conan O’Brien did the only honorable, dignified thing left for him, which was to tell NBC to enjoy the rubble of its schedule, because he wasn’t going to be part of it.
O’Brien surprised everyone by transforming himself from a raw, virtual novice at television performing into a worthy successor to David Letterman in NBC’s late, late slot, in the process giving the network a valuable asset with a new face and style. When competing networks came calling, Conan gave his employers a heads-up: show him a path out of the dead-end 12:30 to 1:30 slot after the “Tonight Show,” or he would listen to other offers. He was told that Jay Leno would give up his “Tonight Show” chair in five years and go back to stand-up, leaving the way open for O’Brien. He agreed to wait. He trusted NBC.
But Jeff Zucker, the NBC president, had a trick up his sleeve. After five years, he decreed that Conan would get the Tonight Show, but in name only. Jay simply moved his show to 10 PM, five nights a week, and almost certainly took a large chunk of the “Tonight Show” audience with him. Conan’s old show was officially handed over to Jimmy Fallon. The old bait and switch!
Leno is reputed to be a nice guy, but his participation in this double-cross doesn’t speak well for him. He could certainly imagine how hard it would have been for him to take over for Johnny Carson if Johnny and Ed and Doc had just slid down the schedule to prime time. Leno took away half of NBC’s publicity, which should have been anointing its new “Tonight Show” host, Conan O’Brien. He took half of the buzz about the change. He took half of his old audience, at least, with him. Conan was being squeezed outrageously, and Leno helped.
Like any professional show business talent facing a challenge, O’Brien convinced himself he could eventually overcome the unexpected handicaps. He didn’t complain publicly; he got down to work. NBC assured him there was plenty of time to find his audience and define his 11:30 style. But Jay soon was stinking up the whole prime time schedule at 10, and the affiliates were screaming. So NBC shafted Conan O’Brien again. Now they were going to move him behind Jay Leno starting at midnight, after Jay did 11:30 to 12. It is hard to believe that NBC really wanted this awkward arrangement, or that Leno agreed to it. What probably happened is that the network wanted to force O’Brien to quit, so Leno could again take over the “Tonight Show.” It got its wish.
The incompetent and the unethical often go hand in hand, and this is certainly an example of that. NBC has lost public good will, turned Conan O’Brien, a sharp comic mind and an engaging personality, into New Coke, and made Jay Leno, whose aura of being smart and harmless is as essential to his image as his chin, look weak, inept, or Machiavellian, depending on your take. Sure, neither Jay or Conan will go hungry, but this isn’t only about money. It’s about being truthful, fair, and responsible to those who work hard for you, depend on your word and trust you.
There are a lot of people in America who believe that if you pay employees enough, it excuses treating them like slaves, dogs or wadded up tissue paper. Well, nothing excuses treating human beings like slaves, dogs or wadded up tissue paper. Conan O’Brien could easily have taken NBC’s kick in the teeth and accepted gazillions of dollars for puttering around the house and not making waves. If he had done this, he would have accepted the network’s unconscionably callous and deceitful conduct, and done nothing to help it learn the slave/dog/paper lesson.
The most satisfying outcome would have been for both Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien to walk out on Zucker and his lackeys, but that could only happen on a TV drama, one of the good ones on other networks. Conan standing up for himself is still worth applauding. Even the highest-paid workers deserve respect.