As a fan of Conan O'Brien since the early 90s (he wrote some classic 3rd and 4th season episodes of "The Simpsons"), I'll do my best to remain impartial. I'll say up front, however, that I'm on Team Conan. I never enjoyed "The Tonight Show" when Jay Leno was host, I love Conan, and I also heartily enjoy David Letterman. I was thrilled when Conan was tapped to take over "The Tonight Show" and am disappointed in NBC's decision. That decision, however ill-advised, has been made. Now, Conan O'Brien must decide what to do. There are pros and cons in each of his options.
Option #1: Conan Walks Away From NBC
Obviously, this isn't an ideal option. Conan worked for years to be the host of "The Tonight Show," moved his family and staff out to Los Angeles, built a set, a style, and is still building an audience for a show that he previously thought he would host for the next 20 years. If he leaves NBC, he'll have to start all over, and right now FOX seems like the only potential landing spot. CBS has Letterman, of course, and ABC has said they're happy with their late night line-up.
The good news is that Conan would be the focal point of late night on the network. Like Jon Stewart on Comedy Central and Letterman on CBS, Conan would have greater creative control than he likely gets at NBC. He'd have to build an audience the same way, but would have instant success for the first few weeks from his loyal following.
Option #2: Stay At NBC And Host His Show At Midnight
So what's the big deal about starting 30 minutes later? It turns out, a ton. You watch the first half of a late night show probably five to six times as much as you watch the second half. When you think of "The Late Show with David Letterman," you think of Top Ten lists, not necessarily a musical performance from Norah Jones. It's the same reason the last 30 minutes of "Saturday Night Live" is like watching a bad open mic night.
That is the biggest impediment, however. NBC wants to keep him, and it's actually a smaller risk than going to another network. Leno gets 11:30 back, sure, but Conan gets the show he's built and might actually do better in ratings than the critics currently think. Who knows -- I'd probably watch Letterman and then flip to Conan right when it starts to get boring.
Another thing to consider is how time slots matter less these days than they used to. More late night content is being watched online, and it may be even heftier for Conan's younger demographic. Advertising online should grow in the coming years, and NBC would be wise to check their stats for Conan's videos vs. Leno's.
As offensive as this move was, I believe Conan should stay with NBC. It's a network he's been at for years, and the future is still unclear. If Leno's 11:30 show doesn't do well, the network may finally let the old dog go, and Conan could get his time slot back.
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