Home / Film / Conan’s Ultimatum Had To Be NBC’s Plan All Along

Conan’s Ultimatum Had To Be NBC’s Plan All Along

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When it comes to conspiracies, I'm never too keen on them. They're fun, but the sizzle always trumps the substance.

However, in the realm of television? Bring out the tinfoil hat and any other mind-protecting devices you have stowed away in your bomb shelter.

We've all seen Conan O'Brien's ultimatum to NBC on the New York Times' Media Decoder blog, wherein our redheaded protagonist played the role of Martin Luther nailing the theses on the executives' door. "I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction," he said, signifying that he wouldn't do The Tonight Show anymore if the show moved to 12:05 to accommodate a half-hour Jay Leno show at 11:35.

And you know something? I believe him. Because it's absolutely not going to happen.

What Conan did amounts to insubordination. Imagine any other TV star going to the media to resist a change that involves their show. They'd be strung up by the wrists and dragged through public opinion's town square. Think about Zach Braff drawing a line in the sand when news came out that Scrubs may not be coming back. What a diva! But in this case … all aboard #TeamConan!

It's all too convenient that the press release was published late afternoon, usually a few hours before they start production on that day's episode. Sure enough, Tuesday night's Tonight Show monologue was substantially packed with jokes about Conan being ousted at NBC. Say what you will about them, but the network has usually been rather easygoing airing satire about themselves (see: Seinfeld episodes about Seinfeld doing a pilot for NBC, and just about the entire breadth of 30 Rock's humor). That's why if this triangular tiff between Conan, Leno, and NBC were anything but a fanciful smokescreen, the jokes and bits that aired last night would have been censor-stuffed. Hell, they even pulled Howie Mandel into this scandal. You know that's some serious shit.

This is where the conspiratorial "we've been conned, pull the wool from over your eyes and wake up sheeple" diatribes are supposed to go. So pretend they're here. And bear in mind, like you've already surmised, that I have nothing to base this on other than years of watching television (which, now that I think about it, makes me an industry expert). But the ratings and buzz around Conan's show this week was unlike anything seen since his first week on the job. NBC has to know about his popularity with the 18-35 demographic and would understand the impact of a press release such as yesterday's hitting the Internet.

From the Sheinhardt Wig Company joke on 30 Rock to Conan's new NBC slogan ("No longer just screwing up prime time!"), NBC absolutely gets it. Viewers are more prone to latch onto a person or a show than a corporation. Nobody likes corporations, they're easy to revile: they're faceless, soulless, and they make more money than us. But they do provide shows and give birth to actors and writers that the people adore, so in that regard they understand their role as the bad cop and play it to perfection.

Given all this, I'll probably have to retract this entire article if Conan does end up leaving as a result of this game of musical time slots. But being the rookie conspiracy nut, odds are I'll instead reformulate this working theory to include the new world order, JFK's assassination, and why Necco Wafers are still being made.

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  • h_e_n_r_y

    Conan is bombarding NBC with hilarious, angry jokes and they can’t do anything. You would think they would take action, but they can’t. Doing so would make them even more hated by the public and would make Conan an even greater martyr.

    The only one to blame is Zucker. To some extent, Leno may also be to blame: He pushed Carson out, screwed Letterman, pressured/intimidated NBC into giving him another show, and is now the only one who wins in this situation.

  • Jim S

    I disagree. I think NBC can’t stop the train they’ve set in motion and Conan (and to a lesser extent, Jay) is pissed and lashing out.

    End result: Jay gets Tonight Show back, NBC gives Conan a HUGE cash settlement, he walks to another show/format (hopefully on cable) and being the “martyr”, gets higher ratings than jawbone and letterman with thier stale, old-people humor.

    Conan was never really a good fit for the Tonigh Show.. he’s too cerebral of a comedian. Think Leary on MNF.

  • Jim S

    One more thing while I’m thinking of it.. don’t let it slip that in trying to retain Conan on the late-night slot is what created this mess. They promised him the Tonight Show in 2004, thus forcing thier hand to oust Leno. He wouldn’t have settled for a “when Leno retires” promise and woulda walked back then. Instead, they guaranteed him the show in 2009… after the Letterman screwing back in the day, who could blame Conan for wanting a guarantee?

    I like Conan but I think he’d do better on a cable show up against these clowns. Same with Craig Ferguson, the funniest of the bunch.

  • LOL, Matt: are you a TV industry expert? And now you are a “conspiratorial expert”. Time will tell. But you always have your day job, writer/editor/tweeter…?

  • I came to a similar conclusion about this whole situation. The controversy has boosted ratings while organizing and propagating solidarity among Conan fans the world over. Conan’s always had people that loved him, but the fact is they weren’t watching. NBC handed down a threat to these delinquent Conan fans to watch or else.

    I blogged about this earlier today and one of my readers referred me here. Here’s a link if you want to read more on my take.

  • If you think NBC is that crafty, you obviously haven’t been paying attention.

    “Leno…pressured/intimidated NBC into giving him another show”

    That’s not what happened. NBC didn’t want him going to a competitor when he decided he didn’t want to retire.

    “NBC gives Conan a HUGE cash settlement”

    Really? Based on what? Sounds more like Conan is refusing to honor his contract because I have yet to hear a clause that said “Tonight Show” had to start at 1135. Did broadcast television collapse when it was bumped from 1130 or cut from 90 to 60 minutes?

    “Conan…’s too cerebral of a comedian”

    Yeah, I thought that when I first saw Masturbating Bear

  • Whether there is a “time” clause in Conan’s contract is probably irrelevant. The Tonite Show has around 60 years of history going for it. It’s an institution. The reduction to a 60 minute format was, if memory serves, mostly at the behest of Carson. The five minute move was pushed by the affiliates who, as we have seen, carry a good deal of weight.

    I think Conan is absolutely correct. Having him follow a 30 minute Leno would likely serve as a death knell for the Tonite Show. Perhaps that’s by design, but I doubt it.

    It seems to me that there is a lot of mis-understanding as regards who pressured whom and when. I don’t pretend to know myself, but the fact that there is so much discrepancy regarding all of this, it’s hardly cut and dried.

    Of course, the immediate upshot is that all of the shows involved are enjoying a spike in their ratings. And Letterman is thoroughly enjoying the moment.

    I must agree with El Bicho regarding Conan’s supposed “cerebral” comedy. I don’t dislike Conan, he has his moments, and he clearly has more appeal to younger viewers, but I hardly consider what he does as cerebral. Also, I’ve never thought Leno was particularly funny. His jokes are obvious and at times awkward or at best just unfunny.

    Being that I’m a “stale” old guy (from Indy, I should add,) I still prefer Letterman. Much of Dave’s schtick is frankly old and tired, but that’s true of most any humorist/comic/comedian who has been around a while. But, when Letterman is “on” – as he has been in recent months regarding Sarah Palin, and even regarding his own recent disclosures, he is very good.

    I do think that NBC screwed the pooch on this one. I don’t believe that their braintrust is clever enough or prescient enough to have plotted all this out. It was a risky experiment that failed, and now they are scrambling to make the best of it. TV audiences are nothing if not fickle. If the network appears to be too heavy handed with either Leno or Conan, it could cost them, at least for a while.


  • Comedy does not follow a regular schedule: it happens when it happens. And when a show has to get out there and make people laugh every night, sometimes the square peg punch line has to be jammed down the audience’s round hole. Hence the hackneyed perceptions of late night hosts.

  • Be they hackneyed or not, it is just those perceptions which control the remote.


  • There would be no better time than now for World Wide Pants to offer Conan O’Brien the Late Show at the Ed Sullivan Theater. Dave Letterman makes a profit and gets the last laugh. NBC screwed up, but it doesn’t matter. They’re all but dead now that they’re owned by Comcast.

  • I don’t think Dave’s ready to call it quits. I think he just signed an extended contract running through 2012 or 2013. Right now he’s having too much fun to quit.


  • There was only one Carson.

  • I know, but he’s on so late after Fallon, I mean, what’s the point?

  • Letterman said that having a show that came on at 2AM is almost the same as not having a show. 🙂

  • OMG, Matt. I don’t think anyone caught that one! Johnny Carson, not Carson Gailey.

    Sorry, folks, I was very torn between Dave and Conan. I’ve never liked Leno and hated him more when he screwed my Dave over. Letterman is my main dude.

  • Gary Knowles

    Nice conspiracy thinking folks, but you missed the most likely one:
    Tiger Woods has pooled cash with Letterman and taken a controlling interest in Comcast. Together they pull the strings on Leno & Conan to build a frenzy to take the big light off them for a while. As long as they can keep Leno and Conan pecking around and whining it will allow them to get some sleep and be ready for a (Tiger) a comeback at the Masters and (2) a big dish of pure cold revenge for Mr.Dave. (Conan will get the Tonight Show).

  • Gosh! (Said while slapping self on forehead.) Of course, it’s so obvious. Tiger & Dave. Right on!

    Poor Jay. He might have to start clipping coupons.


  • In a few hours we will learn that NBC is buying Conan out for $30 million. So Conan will be a free agent and move on to another network. This is a very bad move on NBC’s part. People are not as loyal to Jay Leno as NBC/Comcast thinks. The failure wasn’t on Conan — this is all Dick Ebersol and Jeff Zucker. They took an incredible franchise and ran it into the ground. The key to Leno’s success wasn’t really Leno, it was the prime time programming leading in. The Leno gamble was at Conan O’Brien’s expense.

    Right now I don’t think Conan will go to FOX. My money is on a late night show at Comedy Central for the next 3 or 4 years or until Dave Letterman’s contract runs out. Conan is destined for World Wide Pants. Dave likes him. CBS likes him. And we, the Conan fans, LOVE him.

  • After watching my TiVoed episodes of Kings, which just finished showing out here in Second World Singapore, and looking back on other history (notably Star Trek), I’ve got one serious question…

    Is there ANY “brain trust” at NBC that collectively makes it into the triple digits for IQ? Or has it ALWAYS been Nothing But Cretins?