Saturday, January 16, 2010

Profiles in Cowardice

It looks as though the negotiations between NBC and Conan O'Brien will be completed as early as tomorrow, and I couldn't be happier. With the disaster in Haiti, this entire situation doesn't even deserve ranking as a sideshow. However, a couple of things have happened that tick me off and point to the high level of cowardice within NBC's current management. First, Dick Ebersol, the president of NBC Sports, criticized O'Brien and David Letterman for their jokes about Jay Leno, saying that it was "chicken-hearted and gutless to blame a guy you couldn’t beat in the ratings." He went on to say that "what this is really all about is an astounding failure by Conan." Later, he claimed that if O'Brien had only taken his (Ebersol's) advice to water down his comedy to fit the 11:35 p.m. audience, everything would have been fine.

Let's take those arguments, in reverse order. O'Brien DID make his comedy blander and less pointed in order to avoid offending the "Tonight Show" audience. I don't think they ran the Masturbating Bear once during the last seven months, for example. I'd argue that it was removing exactly that edge that made The Tonight Show less entertaining and less interesting. In the last week, O'Brien has taken the gloves off, and his ratings have soared.

Second, the "failure" at 11:35 was hardly Conan's fault alone. NBC knew that putting Jay Leno on at 10 p.m. was going to draw away some of the older audience, and that they might not stay up later to watch O'Brien. If I recall the statistics, the average shortfall in ratings that NBC affiliates suffered by putting Leno on at 10 was 17%. That meant that a 17% lower audience was carrying over into the 11:35 time period for NBC. Of course O'Brien's ratings were lower, because he wasn't fighting on a level playing field. He had to start with the damage caused by The Jay Leno Show.

Before I skip to the first charge by Ebersol, let me bring you another quote, this time from an article last Friday in the New York Times, including a quote from Jeff Zucker, chairman of NBC Universal:

"Mr. Zucker said that it was during a phone call in the first week of January from Jeff Gaspin, NBC Universal’s head of entertainment, that he learned that the network’s affiliates were threatening to pre-empt the Leno show. 'It was becoming tough to deal with,” Mr. Zucker said. “The pressure from the affiliate body was strong.'

Mr. Gaspin’s idea was to move Mr. O’Brien’s show to 12:05 a.m., and give Mr. Leno a half-hour show at 11:35 p.m. 'That’s what he wanted to do, and I said, O.K., give it a shot,' Mr. Zucker said. The shot exploded in their faces."

Ahh, so it's Jeff Gaspin's fault, is it? If all that Zucker was doing was assenting to a plan proposed by his subordinate, why did Zucker go ballistic and threaten to not only pay O'Brien nothing but to keep him off the air for 3 1/2 years? He seems awfully invested in someone else's idea. It sounds more like Zucker is trying to make Gaspin the fall guy. Zucker was the one who came up with the plan to give The Tonight Show to O'Brien in the first place and to give Leno a show at 10 p.m. after Leno wouldn't agree to a show at 8 p.m. If he didn't originate the harebrained scheme of musical chairs starting with moving Leno back to 11:35, he most certainly approved it.

Which brings me to the "chicken-hearted and gutless" remark by Ebersol. Who's more chicken-hearted and gutless in this situation: O'Brien, standing up for himself, or Zucker, hiding behind Gaspin? For that matter, when Ebersol's Winter Olympics coverage loses $100 to $200 million for NBC, which he's said that it's going to do, I wonder who he'll blame or whether Zucker will stand up for him.
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