I think Conan O’Brien is passing up a helluva opportunity. He could stay on at NBC and, night after night, have an incredible revenge. Instead he’s acting like there can’t possibly be a reasonable explanation for the bad manners, amazing incompetence, casual cruelties, and self-destructive impulses at NBC, and so he’s going to take the high road and get as far as he can from these nutters.
But, really, he knows the drill.
The price Comcast has agreed to pay
to acquire a majority interest in NBC depends, in part, on the Tonight Show
. The Conan-Leno experiment in scheduling and demographics (a mad scientist sort of experiment) was conceived before the Comcast deal. Now every penny that Conan doesn’t make that Jay would have made will cost GE and, as well, anyone whose payout is contingent on the final price of the deal, too much to make them anything less than freaky desperate to return those dollars to the show.
Then, too, the only part of the culture of network television that still reliably exists (after the perks, ratings, glamour, and fun have gone) is heartlessness and cruelty. Everybody in network television has faced some version of the sudden dismissal with extreme prejudice that has been heaped on Conan. It’s part of the bargain: Networks get you the attention of the nation (true, much less attention than they used to get you, but still the most you can get), but the deal is that they can take it back at any time, for any reason, based on any whim. Network television is a constant power struggle; if you are not one of the few people who are all-powerful (and no one actually is), then you are among the very vulnerable and perfectly expendable.
In fact, everybody in network television is vulnerable now, which has increased the capriciousness and irrationality and desperation of the business (characteristics of the business even when it was successful). Network television is collapsing, and NBC is going first into the black hole. The only possibility for any sort of even temporary salvation is for a new change to preempt the last change, which gives you at least a few months to see if somebody’s skin might be saved (the Leno 10pm move was such a change—the change back is another). Jeff Zucker, the head of NBC, is the most successful unsuccessful man in America. He knows how to rearrange the chairs on the Titanic.
And, to spread the blame, it really should not be forgotten: Conan on the Tonight Show hasn’t been that funny
He has, however, become much funnier in recent days because the best subject of every network comedian has always been the networks themselves. You don’t get better material than NBC has given Conan.
So, I personally don’t see why he should leave NBC—why he shouldn’t see that being manhandled and dissed like this, having taken everything they can throw at you, means you’re as close as anyone will come to pure freedom in network television. After all, how much more can he be humiliated? Conan could take his reduced time slot, and every night, with total impunity, great purpose, and joie de vivre, stick it to them
. Conan has the opportunity to be network television’s last legend and he’s walking away.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.