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Conan O'Brien's Pissed, But His Defensive Posture Is Wanting

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I've already written about my opinions regarding Conan O'Brien's talent in front of the camera and my belief that he got a rare opportunity with limited competition over a long haul, and I'm glad he made a lot of money.

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Plus, in their misguided zeal in believing Conan was the wave of the future, NBC executives made a critical mistake with their decision to subject Jay Leno to a slow death over five years, then realized their error too late and made a bigger one they're now trying to undo.

I also stated Jay Leno was not my cup of tea, and that I much preferred his predecessor, Johnny Carson, and David Letterman, Johnny's rumored choice to take over his seat. When Dave left NBC after a year and went head-to-head with Leno and came out on top, I never understood why he lost his ratings advantage to the much more benign Jay, but I acknowledge it and tip my hat to Leno.

NBC has now realized they made the wrong decision and are clumsily trying to sort out their mess, and in so doing they are making even more enemies, not the least of which is the aforementioned Conan O'Brien.

Today, Conan issued a statement in which he said he would not agree to the proposed shift of his time slot to past midnight. He said it was on principle, and, whether I am a fan of his front of the camera skills, I have to admit it was a legitimate stance to defend his honor, considering the decision came much quicker than one might have thought and he wasn't given a very long time to hold forth at the 11:30 hour.

However, since he lost much of Jay Leno's audience, I take issue with Conan's excuse, blaming his failure to match David Letterman on the NBC schedule. He said

It was my mistaken belief that, like my predecessor, I would have the benefit of some time and, just as important, some degree of ratings support from the prime-time schedule. Building a lasting audience at 11:30 is impossible without both.

But sadly, we were never given that chance. After only seven months, with my Tonight Show in its infancy, NBC has decided to react to their terrible difficulties in prime-time by making a change in their long-established late night schedule.

This is nonsense. A network schedule is not a be-all of ratings success for what follows, not to mention the fact that Conan was on at a late night hour, separated from prime-time by the local news, neither of which should influence a viewer's choice whether to watch him if they really wanted to. Johnny Carson was on during fallow periods of NBC programming and always remained the king. Similarly, Leno, after a year at the helm, had to deal with the upstart David Letterman and the "it" factor he represented, ultimately copying some of Letterman's zany man on the street vignettes and, perhaps because of his less abrasive form of comedy, emerged as the victor in most subsequent ratings periods.

In the meantime, Conan was very well known to the general public and had a show for over 15 years before he switched to the earlier time period. I cannot believe that, with all the publicity of Conan's taking over The Tonight Show, with or without hit NBC shows, if the public preferred Conan over Dave they wouldn't have switched to NBC from whatever prime-time network they'd been watching or whatever channel they were tuned to for the late night news, even from CNN's Anderson Cooper.

This robotic mindset that networks and media critics ascribe to the television viewer is nonsense for an audience mostly equipped with remote control devices. Conan failed to attract an audience, because, I hate to say it, don't want to be cruel, but more viewers preferred to watch David Letterman than him. Irrespective of Jay Leno's failure in prime-time, if Conan had been on top NBC wouldn't be moving him.

Even Jerry Seinfeld said as much when he recently expounded on the situation:

What did the network do to Conan? I don't think anyone's preventing people from watching Conan....once they give you the cameras it's on you. So, I can't blame NBC for having to move things around. Conan has a chance to destroy everybody. Go ahead. You're out there. Take it. I don't think anyone's done anything to Conan.

Whether you agree that Conan's a major on-air talent or not, there are loads of people who did great on one show and then didn't on another. Kelsey Grammar, Patricia Heaton, Jerry Lewis and even Lucille Ball. You can't just blame your own shortcomings and/or failings on factors that make little or no sense.

And that's what it's all about, and Conan should take his $40 million lumps. Not a bad consolation prize, which he may have to forfeit if he fails to fulfill his contract, in which NBC reportedly has the right to start his show up to and including the midnight hour. If Conan refuses to perform, perhaps NBC will have the right to sue him or withhold any monies. Or maybe they'll release him to a network like Fox. But as I said in my earlier piece, what makes him think he'll be able to win the audience over Dave and Jay Leno, who, if Conan leaves, will certainly get The Tonight Show back?

Michael Russnow's website is www.ramproductionsinternational.com