Search TMT
TMT Founders
Weekly Columns
Contact TMT
This form does not yet contain any fields.
    « Start Spreadin' the News: Gremlins 3D? | Main | Memo To The Executives: Spider-man Rides Again »

    Editorial: I'm With Coco

    Note: This is an opinion piece and does not reflect the opinions of TMT, its staff, its editors, or anyone but the author, Matthew Fry.

    I want to start by saying this article is a story of success and triumph, not failure. Keep that in mind as you read it.

    I’ve been watching Conan O’Brien for longer than I can remember. I grew up with Conan. Conan got me through college. Conan pretty much made my sense of humor into what it is today. In light of his final episode of The Tonight Show I wanted to ring in with my thoughts on the situation.

    First, just to get it out of the way, fuck you Jay Leno. But more on that later.

     Now, let us review the history of "scandal," from an entirely biased perspective. In 1991 rumblings began of Johnny Carson’s plans to leave The Tonight Show. These rumors were believed to have been started by Helen Kushnick, Jay Leno's manager as a way to force Carson out. After Carson announced his retirement, Kushnick used her influence at NBC to bypass Johnny’s choice for his successor, heir apparent David Letterman in favor of occasional Tonight Show guest host, Jay Leno. Big Chin would host The Tonight Show for 17 years. Throughout this tenure, despite rising to ratings king in late night television, Big Chin would face consistent criticism for doing so by dumbing down his material to appeal to the elderly and the idiots. Also, he stole bits from Letterman and Howard Stern.

     During this time two very important things would happen. First, in 1993 an obscure SNL writer, Conan O’Brien, would become David Letterman’s successor on Late Night. This young host would go on to develop cult success, especially among younger viewers. He was also met with high critical praise, even winning an Emmy Award

    Second, the producer of The Today Show, Jeff Zucker, was named president of NBC entertainment. Despite some early success (primarily in crappy reality shows), Zucker quickly drove NBC from first place to fourth. He has since been described by an anonymous television executive to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd as “a case study in the most destructive media executive ever to exist.”

    Now about five years ago, Zucker went to Leno and said, “Listen, Conan’s the future, how do you feel about retiring in five years and giving Conan The Tonight Show?” Big Chin agreed. I repeat: Big Chin Jay Leno agreed to retire and hand the reigns over to Conan.

    Enter 2008. With less than a year left, Big Chin starts to get cold feet about retiring. Instead of doing the graceful, dignified thing, riding off into the sunset, king of late night as Johnny did before him, he starts to shopping around other networks for offers and use that as leverage against NBC. Zucker who is now knee deep in shit due to his failing prime time, now sees a threat to NBC’s late night dominance. Realizing there is no way Conan can compete against two late night legends; he offers Leno a five day a week prime time variety show. If only Zucker knew that within a year, this would be regarded as the dumbest move in the history of television.

    Come 2009, Conan premieres strong, but falls in the ratings. It’s understandable. It took Leno three years to establish his base and become first in late night TV and Conan is competing against a legend who is in the midst of scandal (translation: ratings gold). NBC had said many times prior to this that they do not expect Conan to beat Letterman right away. But then The Jay Leno Show lands in prime time in September. Leno serves as a horrible lead in, further hurting The Tonight Show’s ratings. Furthermore, the affiliates start to get pissed because Big Chin does not bring in the ratings at all. His variety show is regarded as one of the great bombs in television history. And Zucker, instead of correcting his mistake and buying out Jay Leno's contract, instead proposes NBC move The Jay Leno Show to 11:35, the time slot held by The Tonight Show for over 30 years, which will then be bumped back to 12:05, making it in essence The Next Day Show. There is a collective groan in Hollywood. Conan refuses the move, rightfully claiming it would do far more to hurt The Tonight Show than him stepping down, which he promises to do before the show is moved. The rest is, as they say, history. Practically every observer has spent weeks tearing NBC and Leno apart for their roles in this. Conan is bought out for 45 million dollars (a lot of which is reportedly going to his staff who uprooted their lives to move to LA). His final show aired last night. And everyone is left wondering, what the fuck went wrong?

      NBC has tried to pawn the blame off on Conan and his poor ratings through Zucker’s newly appointed attack dog Dick Ebersol, head of NBC Sports whose accomplishments include masterminding the failed XFL, losing the broadcast rights to most major sports, and losing 200 million dollars on the 2010 Winter Olympics (before the event has even occurred). But frankly, it is unfair to blame Conan. His poor ratings were at first a reflection of a new host being up against a comedy legend who was in the middle of a very public scandal. Later in the game, Conan had a very poor lead in. While Letterman was being led in by CSI, The Mentalist, and NCIS, some of the highest rated shows in television, Conan had Big Chin’s variety show which was hemorrhaging viewers. Finally, time was a factor. As mentioned earlier, it took Big Chin 3 years to beat Letterman. Conan had seven months. Considering these factors it is very unfair to blame Conan.

     It is easy to blame Zucker and NBC. However, their errors were more errors of stupidity and sheer desperation than anything else. Zucker took the most successful network in television history and crashed it into the ground. He then got out and pissed on the wreckage. Their sports programming has been obliterated, prime time ratings are non-existent, all that NBC had left was their late night programming which had been a milestone of the network for 50 years. To allow Conan to compete against Jay Leno AND David Letterman would’ve been suicide for The Tonight Show. When Big Chin started making threats, Zucker had no choice but to put Leno in prime time. That said, they are correctly summed up as the incompetent morons that Conan described them as (in song no less) Tuesday night.  Zucker had the chance to rectify his mistake. Following the bomb of The Jay Leno Show, neither Fox nor ABC would touch Leno. He would finally be forced into a dignified retirement had Zucker just forked over the cash to buy him out and paid for his mistake. He didn’t. Now NBC is stuck with an aging comedian for the host of The Tonight Show who has no heir, but more on that in a bit.  The point is instead of fixing their mistakes, these morons just made it worse by trying to have their cake and eat it too. So yes, some blame lies with NBC.

    However, I’d say the true villain here is none other than Big Chin. This is a man with a reputation of walking over anyone to get what he wants. As mentioned, in 2008 he got cold feet about retiring but knew it was too late. So, Leno, who is now trying to play the victim, resolved to take The Tonight Show down with him. First, the man who prides himself on his easy negotiations and hand shake deals leveraged other offers over NBC’s head to force the disastrous prime time venture. Then once this story started making it big and The Jay Leno Show’s cancellation was imminent, he lobbied NBC both through the press and in person to reinstall him as head of The Tonight Show. For a man who claims to have no agent, he is certainly as Machiavellian as one. All this is from a man who claims to be Conan’s friend. Monday night he tried to give “his side of the story,” in which he portrayed himself as a victim of NBC’s bad decisions. He failed to mention, that he was cutting backroom deals with them throughout their decision making process. A bit hypocritical, wouldn’t you agree? Leno is not the aloof victim he is trying to portray himself as, quite the contrary. He, much like he was in 1991, is a conniving backstabber. It is as Letterman said on Tuesday, you do not announce your retirement, pass the torch on to your successor, and then say to the network brass, “But I’ll be in the lobby if you need me.” It is a classless, selfish act. Much like Jay Leno is a classless, selfish man.

     So what does the future hold? Leno came out of his stampede over Letterman unscratched. One can only hope that in the age of information and 24 hour news networks that this public affair has destroyed his credibility and hurt his ratings. Some how I doubt it. He will return to The Tonight Show on top and probably stay there for awhile. But he is certainly getting no younger. Eventually he will retire for good (probably in 3 to 7 years), and with Jimmy Fallon being young and inexperienced, there is no longer an heir to the greatest franchise in television history. I am reminded of the story of King Solomon. Conan loved The Tonight Show enough to leave it before seeing it moved to midnight. Leno on the other hand continued to stomp his feet and demand he be put back in, consequences be damned. Sadly, Jeff Zucker was not nearly as wise as Solomon and he gave in to Leno. Sadly, he has probably ensured that The Tonight Show dies with Jay Leno in doing so.

    As for Conan, I think the future is bright. He now has the chance to create his own show and carve his own legacy at Fox, much like Letterman did at CBS. And make no mistake about it; it is only a matter of time before he signs with Fox. In his farewell speech last night, Conan begged his younger viewers not to be cynical. He said, “If you work hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.” Well, Conan is one of the hardest workers in the industry and he is renowned for his kind spirit, so I have no doubt that Coco is onto bigger and better things, and that is the true story here.  The success story I mentioned earlier. Conan will rise out of this and he will fight another day. The sky is the limit right now, for Conan O’Brien. So, like Conan’s going away montage last night, I will not conclude this article, instead, it is simply to be continued.

    Reader Comments (12)

    I'd give you a hug if I could Matt, lovely article. As a Brit, its been fascintating watching this battle from the outside. Even with no affinity for either side and no personal attachment to their shows, even I can see what a total debacle it has been.

    01-23-2010 | Registered CommenterPhil Gee

    Jay, Dave and Conan all grew up wanting to host "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." Can you think any young person that would want to host "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno?" For me Conan's Late Night was the show that seemed the most fun or The Daily Show. That would be my fantasy or dream would be to host one of those two shows.

    01-23-2010 | Unregistered CommenterChris Shifty

    Great article, Matt. It's a shame that a great television franchise has just lost one of the best comedic minds of this generation forever.

    01-23-2010 | Unregistered CommenterSpidey-Bat

    Awsome article! I love Conan...I hate to see him go. Leno truly is a douche

    01-23-2010 | Unregistered CommenterMitch Anderson


    01-23-2010 | Unregistered CommenterDan Scaglione

    Thanks for all the kind words guys. Lets keep the love coming for Coco :)

    01-24-2010 | Registered CommenterMatthew Fry

    That was a great article Matt.

    01-24-2010 | Unregistered CommenterI SEE SPIDEY

    I agree with every word. Especially the part about growing up watching Conan and him defining my sense of humor.

    Screw Leno.
    Viva la Coco!

    01-24-2010 | Unregistered CommenterLL

    Great job Matt.

    Zucker should already have been fired, it blows my mind that he is still around.

    In regards to Conan, he'll be back. I wouldn't be surprised to see him pop up on a cable network with a new show, if not that, he can always go back to writing. What about a sitcom like Seinfeld? A reality show in the vein of Curb Your Enthusiasm?

    01-24-2010 | Registered CommenterPeter Georgiou

    That was great...I'm passing it along to all my friends who still seem to think Jay is not somehow involved and that it's all Zucker and NBC big wigs.

    01-24-2010 | Unregistered CommenterFanticon

    I salute you.
    Brilliant article.

    01-24-2010 | Unregistered Commenterpq

    Matt. "Excellent." Thank you for saying what everybody else in the know was thinking. Jeff Zucker came from a privileged upbringing (silver spoon/trust fund brat) legacied into Harvard and then was handed the reins to NBC with really nothing on his resume but the Today show and Harvard. He doesn't have the capability to think like a typical TV viewer and relies too much on Neilson ratings, spreadsheets and marketing reports. If there is any justice in this sad world, Mr. Zucker will soon be on the unemployment line going down in history as the person who killed NBC. FIRE JEFF ZUCKER!!

    01-24-2010 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

    PostPost a New Comment

    Enter your information below to add a new comment.
    Author Email (optional):
    Author URL (optional):
    Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>