Tonight, the Blogger is going to watch the last taping of Tonight with Conan O’Brien (broadcasted in USA last Friday). A strange process it has been. When he started in the Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 1993, O’Brien was quite unknown and almost remained so, looking like one of the likely victims of the Late Night Talk Show Wars. Then, the main focus of interest, however, was on the fate of Jay Leno, who recently had got the appreciated Tonight Show, although many had expected David Letterman to be the righteous heir of the throne of Johnny Carson.
The story goes that at its early phase, the Late Night with Conan O’Brien was actually decided to be cancelled (unbeknownst to O’Brien), and was let to run only until a new program could be found for the time slot. In the meanwhile, however, O’Brien started to get more and more audience, and some five years ago, it was announced that the would herit the Tonight show after Jay Leno.
For a while, it looked like the NBC was going to avoid the crisis of the 1990s, although Leno was not very happy of the solution in the first place. Turns out Leno was not really going anywhere; he was given a time slot before Conan. It looked like a strange solution anyway, as Leno’s show deprived the TV series their time slot, and it proved to be unsuccessful to put so many talk shows in line (The Jay Leno Show, Tonight, Late Night [now with Jimmy Fallon], Last Call…). And now NBC is giving the old position back to him, after first denying any plans to make alterations, then trying to change the old traditions of Tonight Show by pushing it and O’Brien to a later time slot, and finally ending up with O’Brien leaving NBC. Which he might have done already some five years ago, if he hadn’t been promised the Tonight Show in the first place, in which case he would have had some five years to build a new show someplace else.
Is NBC wisely adjusting itself in a changing situation, as some people say? Maybe, but somehow the Blogger was reminded about Jim Collins’ book How the Mighty Fall, describing the five stages of decline of many big companies. Comparing the observations of Collins to the results of Bill Carter’s interesting book Desperate Networks about the plight of American broadcasters, one might think that NBC has reached the fourth phase of decline, ”Grasping for Salvation”. ( To see Bill Carter’s recent analysis, look here.)
While the Blogger is waiting for the ”I’m with CoCo” T-shirt to arrive from the USA (there is no doubt whom she sympathizes), it will be interesting to take a look at the final episode of the show and to speculate where exactly O’Brien will resurrect next September, after the end of his broadcasting quarantine. Although the Tonight Show has been a big deal and meant a lot to O’Brien, the change may turn out for the best even for him.
In his book Desperate Networks, describing the situation of NBC a couple of years earlier, Bill Carter claims that Jeff Zucker of NBC ”could not help thinking how much worse off he and NBC might have been that fall: Imagine how this year would be if we had bungled the Conan thing.” In the end, however, they did.
Some more will be blogged in Finnish later on.
Some further reading connected to the present mess:
Bill Carter’s analysis of Conan O’Brien’s position
Mid-life crisis analysis of NBC
Conan O’Briens open letter
FOX woos O’Brien
Bill Carter has covered the Late Night Talk Show War of the 1990s in his book ”The Late Shift”; Bernard M. Timberg has given a good analysis of the history of talk show, including the development of the Tonight Show, in his ”Television talk.”
The Blogger has, among other things, written an online analysis, published as “In Finland I am the MAN!” Gender, Irony and Exoticism in Late Night with Conan O’Brien. in the conference proceedings History of Stardom Reconsidered. IIPC, Turku 2006.