I've got to be honest with you. I've never been a big Conan O'Brien fan. At least, not until today.
This afternoon, the New York Times reported that Conan had rejected NBC's plan to move his "Tonight Show" from its 11:35 p.m. slot to 12:05 a.m. to accommodate Jay Leno's return to late-night television. This is just the latest step in a drama that has quickly spun out of NBC's control.
Some background, in case you haven't been paying attention:
Conan replaced David Letterman on "Late Night" (at 11:35 p.m. Eastern) in 1993, when Letterman jumped over to CBS after losing out to Leno as Johnny Carson's successor at "The Tonight Show." In 2004, NBC announced that Conan would succeed Leno — five years later, in 2009. (I mean really: who makes hiring decisions years in advance? Oh, right. Big law firms. Brilliant.)
This fall, Conan indeed replaced Leno at the helm of "The Tonight Show." But NBC wanted to keep the great comedic talent that is Jay Leno (OK, that's a little sarcasm; I'm even less of a fan of Jay) (good name, though). So it came up with a "revolutionary" idea to create an ersatz version of "The Tonight Show" featuring Leno that would run weeknights at 10 p.m. Eastern. The rationale was that "The Jay Leno Show" would be much cheaper (even paying crazy money to Leno) than to pay to fill five hours of scripted TV dramas during that slot.
But the gamble failed. The show was panned and the ratings tanked. Despite having earlier said that they would give the show a year, NBC panicked last week and pulled the plug. But apparently, they want to have their cake and eat it during late-night too. Instead of sending Leno to the cruise-ship circuit, NBC has decided to move "Leno" (the show) to "The Tonight Show's" time slot: 11:35. But they would shorten "Leno" (again, the show) to thirty minutes, and start Conan's "Tonight Show" at 12:05 a.m.
(The Times has reported in a different article that Conan's contract did not specify what time slot his show would run in. Some have suggested that this was bad lawyering. On the other hand, AP has reported that the contract does say it can't begin the show later than 12:05.)
Of course, the common-sense question is "How can 'The Tonight Show' begin when it's no longer tonight?"
So today, Conan released a statement rejecting the move to 12:05, instantly garnering massive worldwide support on Twitter and in the blogosphere. Now normally, when you hear that someone "released a statement," you immediately think boring nothingness generated by lawyers. But here's where Conan really shined. First, he almost certainly wrote it himself (probably with help, but that's OK). Second, he completely avoided coming across whiny, pouty, angry, or victim-y. Third, he chose not to trash anyone, not even NBC. He favorably mentioned Carson, Letterman, and his "Late Show" successor Jimmy Fallon (who's really getting screwed by being bumped to 1:05, where he could lose both his viewers). Fourth, he spoke respectfully, with much language about the tradition and importance of "The Tonight Show's" six decades following the late local news.
And fifth, and I think most important, he was funny. I don't mean LOL funny; but with a light-hearted irreverence that humanizes him and his message without making the reader question the seriousness of his feelings.
And that's the real trick. Too many people — employers, employees, and their lawyers — hide behind a thin veneer of pomposity, haughtiness, verbosity, and legalese. That never works — ever. All it does is turn off the reader, and may even turn the reader against the writer. Instead, Conan wrote with charm — a perfect blend of humor and seriousness. Now unless NBC backs down and kicks Leno to cable, it has no chance of winning this contest. Conan powned them.
Read Conan's complete statement in the Times article here.
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