by Linda Holmes
NBC and Conan O'Brien have reached a deal in which the network will pay him a great deal of money to leave his job as the host of The Tonight Show to make way for the return of Jay Leno, whose failed experiment in prime-time left O'Brien the odd man out.
Reports peg the deal at about $45 million in all, $33 million for O'Brien and $12 million for his staff -- which, remember, moved from New York to Los Angeles less than a year ago for what they probably figured were great new jobs. When September rolls around, Conan will be free to go somewhere else -- to Fox, Comedy Central, or whoever else wants to make a deal with him.
Friday will be Conan O'Brien's last night hosting The Tonight Show -- he will have been there, in the end, for seven months and 22 days.
There's a not-unfair question that's been raised as we (and everyone else) have watched the unfolding Tonight Show drama: Who cares?
Sometimes, this just means "I don't watch television, so who cares?" or "It's not as important as world hunger, so who cares?" But in this case, it's more specific. More like, "These are late-night shows that most people don't watch; it's the difference between two relatively similar hosts doing relatively similar things, neither of whom has been setting the world on fire lately, so ... who cares?"
In other words, even if you follow entertainment news generally, you might be baffled by how much attention this story has received.
So why did it resonate?
1. A surprisingly familiar workplace mess. For people who sympathize with Conan O'Brien's position, what they see with Conan is a guy who made a deal, and is now finding that the people he made it with have arguably honored the letter while certainly violating the spirit. NBC's "It's still The Tonight Show even if you're following Jay Leno again at 12:05" argument, whether or not it would win in court, sounds familiar, I think, for people who have been nickel-and-dimed over technicalities. That familiarity holds, even with so many nickels and dimes involved.
It's important to remember that this is only one of several insults Conan's supporters say he's suffered at the hands of NBC. Not only were the suits openly unsupportive of him during his first years on Late Night (renewing his gig by small measures, threatening to replace him within his first year), but giving Leno the 10 p.m. slot was already a violation of what O'Brien understood to be his deal -- given that it forced him to follow Leno again, and to compete for guests again, and to suffer along with the local news if Leno's show tanked. (Which is exactly what happened.)
Leno's supporters, on the other hand, see a guy who has always done exactly what was asked of him, was doing as expected in his job, was pushed out for a new guy on the theory that he was too old, and is now being publicly excoriated for management decisions he would have told management not to make in the first place. No matter whose side you take, there's a surprising amount of relatability in the circumstances, considering that the people involved are, and will remain, multi-millionaires.
More reasons, after the jump.
2. It is, for good or ill, an institution. These guys aren't wrestling over Judge Judy or a judges' chair on American Idol. The Tonight Show is a big deal -- it just is. This is the job Johnny Carson had, and whether you think either of these guys is any good at it or not, it takes on more significance than it would if it were a similar fight over a different job.
Comedian Louis C.K. appeared at the TV critics' press tour to promote a new show he's doing for FX, and he said he never understood why Conan (a guy he knows well) wanted The Tonight Show in the first place, given its fusty reputation as something old people watch. But Conan wanted it, because it's that job. It may be one of those things that becomes a guy's white whale or his Ark of the Covenant -- by which I mean that wanting it is more about the wanting than it is about the thing itself.
3. It seems to stand for something broader about entertainment media. When NBC announced its intentions to put Leno on at 10 p.m., the network was surprisingly blunt about the fact that the entire motive was cost-cutting. Everyone knew the ratings would be bad, meaning everyone knew that on the whole, audiences would be getting less content that they wanted and more content that they didn't. That's one reason a lot of people relished Leno's failure in prime time: It was a cold and cynical move, and NBC admitted it. They never said the Leno show was going to be good; they just said it was going to be cheap. For audiences, and for the critics and journalists who help these stories churn, that's galling.
So when the show failed, people who saw it that way wanted Leno vanquished, not restored to his previous position at the expense of Conan O'Brien, who wasn't part of this disastrous experiment. Many are eager to call this a victory for quality over cheap programming, and an indicator that networks will just have to go back to making great shows. That's a wild overstatement of what it actually means. There is still plenty of cheap programming that does very well and makes buckets of money; it's just that this kind of cheap programming, repeated five times a week, created with quite that much cynical cost-cutting and quite that little creativity, may be too much.
4. Zucker. One of the other things that resonates with viewers who follow enough industry news to know the role Jeff Zucker played is that he's apparently the only person who hasn't (yet) suffered any consequences at all from this debacle -- and he's the guy who touched it off. The NBC exec himself recently told The New York Times that all the fuss arises from how much people love a soap opera, and he's probably right. But in fairness, he's brought some of that on himself. Give people a villain, and they're more likely to follow a story.
5. It's generational. Both Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien, when they work at 11:35 p.m., have shows that skew fairly old. But Conan's fan base -- consisting in part of people who love watching clips of him but perhaps don't actually watch him regularly -- contains a lot more people who are a good bit younger than the core Leno audience. Conan's fans, therefore, are massively overrepresented, relative to their numbers, in social media, compared to Leno's fans. More people watched Jay Leno at 10 p.m. than regularly watched Conan O'Brien at 11:35; there's no Twitter trending topic that changes that fact.
So you wind up with a lot of people who see this as Old Guys vs. Young Guys, White Hair vs. Red Hair, Jaywalking versus Triumph The Insult Comic Dog. And if you're a Leno fan, you may see it as Class vs. Crass, Gentle vs. Harsh, or even things you can watch with your kids vs. things you can't. With other entertainment stories, there isn't always this sense that parts of the culture are pulling at each other for control of media, but there is in this case.
In the end, did it really matter? Of course not, not really, not in most of our daily lives. But it's not surprising that this saga, which as late as last weekend kept churning out tasty snacks like the 2004 video of Leno explaining why he would peacefully hand over the show to O'Brien in 2009, has managed to provoke such passionate responses.
And all, in the end, over what really adds up to nothing but the handing over of Conan's show to Jimmy Fallon.