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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Late night scorecard: Conan reaches exit deal

With NBC finally announcing it has reached a $45 million deal with Conan O’Brien to exit "The Tonight Show," we can't help but feel a little upset that all this drama is going to end soon.

After all, we haven't been this excited about late night television
since "Thicke of the Night," but hey, there's always Conan's next career move to look forward to.

If that day on a rival network comes, late night TV will be cutthroat as ever, but for now, we're going to enjoy these last two episodes of inspired "Tonight Show" revelry as Conan uses everything in his arsenal to mercilessly mock and further bankrupt his soon-to-be ex-employer.

Under the just announced deal, Conan will get more than $33 million, while the rest will go to his staff in severance. Conan's final show will be Friday, and Leno will return to “Tonight” on March 1. Conan is free to return to TV as soon as September.

What should you, dear viewer, make of the fallout? Well, we have a convenient (and admittedly biased) scorecard in case you've been watching "George Lopez" reruns on Nick at Nite instead.

Jay Leno

Why he wins: Leno not only gets his old show back -- the one he successfully helmed for 17 years -- but he also gets to retire on his terms. Despite his "gracious" words for Conan, there's nothing like being the last man standing in a bitter showbiz mess, and twice, Leno has proved the victor. Leno also can work with a chip on his shoulder since chief rival, David Letterman, reclaimed the late night ratings throne in his absence. Plus, "The Jay Leno Show" is such a black mark, and having been told by NBC that he couldn't maintain his grip on the top spot, the workaholic Leno has a lot to prove now.

Why he loses: Blue-collar, car-rustlin', jean-shirt wearin' Jay won the late night ratings battle in large part because he comes across as a humble everyman -- a persona Letterman repeatedly has tried to poke holes in this week by insinuating Leno's phoniness. It's hard to deny that Jay has a Brett Favre-ian charm that way. But just like Favre, the public relations battle hasn't been so easy to manipulate this time around. Leno has taken several hits throughout the course of this all-too public NBC debacle, with the comedy community and Hollywood rallying wholeheartedly behind Conan. That's not to say anyone has outwardly called Leno a "bad guy" -- Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser certainly love him -- but if one were inclined to pick sides, sympathy would overwhelmingly be in Conan's court. Leno's stab at tilting the scales this week by noting that NBC has fired him twice and that he's not responsible for the overall mess may have curried some favor, or could even have grains of truth to it. But for the most part, it was seen in critical circles as a largely transparent attempt at damage control. Much like Letterman has pointed out on his show, Channel Surfing believes Leno is being viewed as a manipulator who had his chance in the spotlight and should have gone away to another network instead of hovering in the background to the detriment of Conan.

Where does he go from here: NBC executive Dick Ebersol all but confirmed in his "chicken-hearted" screed against Conan that late night hosts are expected to play ball. And no one plays ball better than Leno, who has long been accused of sacrificing comedy for broader mass appeal -- which of course, helps catapult you in the ratings. Here's a bet that "Tonight" will get a huge bump from its returning audience of "Jaywalking" fanatics and eventually topple Letterman's show again. When he does retire -- with Jimmy Fallon perhaps waiting in the wings this time -- Leno will be No. 1, but he won't ever be as respected as Johnny Carson or Letterman. So basically, we're back to where we were last year before Conan took over. Ho-hum.

Conan O'Brien

Why he wins: Conan refused to buckle under pressure twice -- the first time when Ebersol all but let it leak that he didn't tailor his show to be more like Leno's version of "Tonight," and best of all, when he issued his fantastic statement about not contributing to the destruction of a hallowed institution. This past week of brilliant, bittersweet comedy has also confirmed that Conan could have been a major player given more time and support. The ratings rise alone is a huge moral victory. Also, Conan's online army via Twitter and Facebook further affirms that his audience skews young, which will be advantageous in the long term if someone like Fox chooses to snatch him up. In the end, Conan comes out the martyr and can eventually get back to doing a show on his terms (more "Late Night"-style musical guests, please) without the pressure of both the "Tonight" banner and Leno's heavy ratings shadow hanging overhead. Oh, and it might be nice to be appreciated by one's bosses.

Why he loses: Though NBC is trying to spin this latest blow by saying that Conan is the one walking away from his contract, he's literally and figuratively the red-headed stepchild in all of this. Leno won the popularity contest with NBC brass -- first by getting heavy promo time and A-listers in the 9 p.m. slot, and again with a renewed half-hour presentation in the old "Tonight" spot. Bottom line: Leno's the proven commodity. So regardless of Conan's settlement and the respect he's gained for his handling of the unfair treatment, Leno gets the prize inside the cereal box and Conan looks like the kid in the corner with a dunce cap. If Leno does as expected and bests Letterman again, that'll only continue to reflect poorly on Conan's short-lived "Tonight" reign. Still, seven months on the job and a very public ouster doesn't do a whole lot for the ol' self-confidence. Though he earned the "Tonight" reins, Conan's legacy is tainted simply because he couldn't outlast Leno's bionic chin.

Where does he go from here: Hey, if Magic Johnson can have a failed late night talk show, so can Conan, right? In the end, it's probably best for Conan to get rid of the burden that comes with Leno-like expectations on a fading network. Though NBC rightfully wanted him in the fold as their "future star," they clearly didn't realize that he brought a completely different, un-Leno-like comedy approach to the 10:35 p.m. slot. The honeymoon lasted seven months. That lapse in judgment and the subsequent pressure to deliver stellar ratings left a sour impression with NBC suits. Ultimately, Conan controls his own destiny. And though Fox appears to make the most sense from a competitive standpoint, with $33 million in walk-away dollars, I wouldn't be surprised if Conan chooses a different comedy path and stays away from the Leno-Letterman ratings fray. Whatever he does, he'll have a loyal following. And with youth on his side, he'll come out the long term winner when Leno and Letterman are both retired. You know, unless NBC decides Leno's propped-up corpse is still viable property at 10:35 p.m. It's not like dead, rotting Jay could be any less funny, right?

David Letterman

Why he wins: Dave gets to lob spitballs from the back of class and rag on Leno -- obviously a favorite pastime of his. Also, instead of coming across as increasingly bitter because he lost the "Tonight" battle all those years ago, Letterman is finally playing off public disdain for Leno. It puts Letterman in the position to be both funny, and in his estimation, honest about how he's long assessed his late night rival's phony, backstabbing behavior. Ever since Leno snatched the crown from Carson, Letterman has probably longed for this moment. The running commentary on his show this week shows why. He's savoring every last drop.

Why he loses: Letterman can't beat Leno. Maybe public opinion will shift following the Conan treatment, but if viewers didn't drop Leno for Letterman because of pure comedy in the past, why would it happen upon Jay's return? Trumping his rival again will only validate Leno's choice to stick around, and consequently make NBC feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Sure, it'd be nice if Letterman went out on top, but "Tonight" is still the late night franchise with the most cachet. And Leno is still probably going to be as likeable as ever, despite these few bumps he's endured the past few weeks. The Leno formula works just like the "American Idol" formula works, just like the Larry the Cable Guy formula works, so on and so forth. No reason to think anything changes now.

Where does he go from here: We'd love to see Letterman bring Conan on his show when all is said and done -- even if Conan signs some sort of agreement that prohibits him from ripping on NBC in public. You know Letterman won't abide by that gag order. And wow, what a ratings coup that would be. If Letterman could somehow swing that for Leno's first night back, it could be all the momentum he needs.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski,

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