Conan Takes Principled Stand

In the latest episode of NBC’s late-night lineup debacle, Conan O’Brien issued a statement today that he will refuse to host The Tonight Show if it is moved to 12:05, and The Jay Leno Show is aired at 11:35.

It is absolutely the right move by Conan, and kudos to him for taking a principled stand among what appears to be a sea of pragmatists at NBC.

This mess was foreshadowed back in ’04 when Leno renewed his Tonight Show contract. NBC worked out a deal where Conan would take over the Tonight Show once Leno’s contract expired in ’09. It was what Conan wanted, but Leno seemed less excited about it.

On the 50th anniversary of The Tonight Show (9/27/04), Leno made the announcement, but implied NBC pushed him out, (paraphrasing) “NBC said ‘We don’t want to lose Conan’ and I said ‘What does that mean?'” He did not seem excited about it, but played along.

NBC has been trying to have its cake, and eat it too. Both hosts are late night giants in their own right, and NBC made a gamble promising The Tonight Show to Conan, enticing him to stay with the network in lieu of other opportunities. “I worked long and hard to [host the Tonight Show and] passed up far more lucrative offers…” Conan said in his statement today. Meanwhile, they must have simply hoped Leno would stay on their network or retire.

Leno may deserve some criticism here. If he indeed did not want to retire, why didn’t he stand up to NBC back in ’04? Why doesn’t he accept the risk he took with his 10pm show, and now pack his bags and move to another network or do something different?

Leno moving back to 11:35 is wrong. A talk show on NBC at 11:35 is The Tonight Show de facto, and it doesn’t matter what title they give it. And that move would be a broken promise to Conan.

NBC had a leading late night lineup for a five year period, a position it was able to maintain for a time. Ultimately, however, both Leno and Conan have earned the status of late night giants in their own right, and keeping them on the same network may just not be possible.

If that is the way it is, then I say: let it be. The right question for NBC, at this point, is “What should we do with Leno?”

Personally, I’d love to see Leno host an American version of the TV series Top Gear. Or do movie reviews and take over At The Movies, now that Ebert is out (its replacement current hosts are quite a bore, and Leno was a guest at one point and quite good). But the bottom line is I think it’s time for Leno to move on if his 10pm show can’t cut it on the network. And if NBC doesn’t have the balls to make that call, at least Conan O’Brien will step up to the plate and force the issue.

Conan has the most to lose here. That he is the one willing to take the biggest risk at the same time demonstrates true leadership. That he won’t settle for less illustrates who the real people of character are in all of this mess. If this were an election, I would say he has earned my vote. Vote for Conan in o’10.