As I watched Conan O’Brien host his final episode of “The Tonight Show” on Friday, I instantly recognized the broadcast as a spectacle I will regale my children with someday when they ask me the oddly specific question of what the late-night television climate was like during January of 2010. Partially, this is due to the fact that not only did O’Brien provide his audience and fans with a phenomenal final episode, but also ended it with – I couldn’t make this up if I tried – a full-fledged rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” performed by Max Weinberg and “The Tonight Show” band, with Conan playing guitar beside the likes of Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Beck on guitar, Ben Harper on slide guitar and Will Ferrell on lead vocals. Yeah, they went there. But the other reason I will remember this iconic broadcast forever is because it demonstrated, in the clearest possible manner, why NBC is the proverbial whipping boy of the current broadcast stations.
While the details concerning the NBC late-night situation are both numerous and complex, I have come to one conclusion: Conan has been ousted from his deserved position of hosting what he calls, “The greatest franchise in broadcast history.” When NBC asked Conan to move his broadcast of “The Tonight Show” from 11:35 p.m. to 12:05 p.m. to accommodate for the floundering “Jay Leno Show,” he immediately recognized the damage the time slot change would do. As he said in his statement concerning the matter, “Some people will make the argument that a time slot doesn’t matter. But with ‘The Tonight Show,’ I believe nothing could matter more.” Following NBC’s decision to finalize the schedule change, Conan decided to leave instead of being pushed out of a position he earned by dedicating most of his adult life to producing quality content for the network.
Since his work as a writer for SNL in the late 80s and early 90s (you know, when it was actually good), O’Brien has been both a diligent worker and successful personality for NBC. As host of “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” he served for 16 years, mostly at the top of the ratings for that time slot. Now, after only seven and a half months and a mere 146 episodes, NBC has bullied him out of a job that, “Every comedian dreams of,” as Conan said in his final address on “The Tonight Show” Friday.
As I watched one of the all-around funniest people on TV get forced out of the job he has not only sought for as long as he can remember but also worked two decades to earn, I realized this decision pretty much spells out why NBC is pretty much the Los Angeles Clippers of the broadcast television league. If one couldn’t tell before, it was extremely clear following the late-night schedule chaos that the overwhelming majority of viewers support Conan. This is demonstrated by the outpouring of fan support for Conan following the debacle, including staged rallies outside Universal Studios and the, “I’m with Coco” Internet movement. So in light of all this, why in the name of Ringo Starr did NBC think it was a good idea to push around one of its most popular personalities until he had no choice but to leave the network?
It seems like NBC hasn’t even been paying attention to its own broadcast history over the past two decades. Yes, when Conan O’Brien took over for “The Tonight Show,” ratings began to slip, but this entire fiasco was the opposite of the appropriate response.
Perhaps as proof of the treasure being carelessly cast away by the undeserving hands of NBC, Conan delivered a speech on his final show in which he refrained from bashing the network, instead praising and thanking them for the opportunity and work they were able to create together. Yes, even though he was mistreated and discounted by a network that he gave so much of his time and energy to, he had the class and grace to part ways with NBC with the kind of dignity and intelligence the network itself is clearly lacking. In 1993, NBC hired Jay Leno to do “The Tonight Show” mostly on the grounds that he was not only tremendously funny, but a team player as well. Now, when they perhaps need a man of similar character more than ever, they throw Conan away. The only thing I can say is this: I’m with Coco.
Dave Coffey is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.