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Conan says no to late shift

January 12, 2010 - Andy Gray
In a statement issued today, Conan O’Brien said he won’t accept NBC’s plan to move his version of “The Tonight Show” to after midnight to accommodate Jay Leno and the cancellation of Leno’s 10 p.m. show.

Good for him.

It may mean walking away from a contract that pays him millions (and it’s easy to say walk away when it’s not your money), but O’Brien always will have the taint of damaged goods if he remains at NBC, even if he isn’t the main reason for all the juggling.

There are those who will argue that O’Brien couldn’t cut it at 11:35 p.m. if he accepts the demotion (NBC can call it whatever it wants, but that’s what it is). And even if they still call O’Brien’s program “The Tonight Show,” it will be “The Tonight Show” in name only in that slot.

O’Brien will have no shortage of suitors if he wants to go somewhere else. Fox President Kevin Reilly all but said his network would offer him a deal if he became available. And O’Brien could make even more money by taking a greater risk and going the syndication route.

I wrote a column when Leno’s show premiered arguing that it was a smart business decision for NBC. At a time when television advertising was down and NBC’s hour-long shows were struggling, a low-cost alternative that also kept Leno from going to one of their competitors seemed like a good idea from a purely economic standpoint.

OK, I was wrong. I certainly didn’t consider the impact of the move on NBC affiliates’ 11 p.m. newscasts. I was thinking short-term without considering the broader impact. That’s what NBC is doing now by trying to squeeze Leno back into its late-night lineup.

Leno may do better than O’Brien was at 11:35 p.m., but the move is the equivalent of a baseball team hoping to get one more good season out of an aging slugger and losing its prospects in the process.


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