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With respect: Top five reasons Conan O'Brien's TBS show may go bust



conan-tbs-talk-show-owl.jpgThe first time I wondered if Conan O'Brien might not understand the predicament he was in, his version of the Tonight Show hadn't even debuted.

It was January 2009, and NBC had announced it was giving Jay Leno the 10 p.m. timeslot weekdays for that fall. Meaning, the guy who he was replacing as Tonight Show host would return to NBC just months after O'Brien's 11:35 p.m. program debuted.

The situation reminded me of a moment during Bill Carter's excellent book on the Leno/David Letterman battle over the Tonight Show, called the Late Shift, in which NBC executives were reportedly prepared to give Letterman the Tonight Show after Leno had hosted it for over a year. A confidant of Letterman's pushed him to go to CBS saying something like, "They're not giving you Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. That show is dead."

So I asked O'Brien during a reception hosted by NBC whether he felt they were actually giving him the Tonight Show. If Leno takes his signature comedy bits to 10 p.m., I asked, won't it feel like the Tonight Show just moved to primetime?

O'Brien made the obligatory supportive comments about working with Leno and I wondered then if he really knew that he might be at the beginning of the end.

conan-obrien-and-jay1.jpgFast forward less than two years, and O'Brien has been squeezed out of the Tonight Show job in an embarassingly public fashion, resurfacing on TBS, which will debut his new 11 p.m. show Conan tonight. See the website here.

Carter has followed Late Shift with a new book, The War for Late Night, in which he reveals O'Brien was likely undone by neglecting to demand his Tonight Show air at 11:35; when Leno's ratings tanked at 10 p.m., the network prepared to end a 50-plus-year tradition by demanding O'Brien move to midnight, allowing his predecessor a half-hour show at 11:35 p.m. O'Brien left instead, negotiating a severance worth over $40-million for himself and his employees.

I'm hoping he succeeds. As a stone fan of late night television done well, I'm always hopeful when a new voice enters the fray. And if he can deliver something fresh at 11 p.m., young fans will have another reason to stay up past prime time and keep the TV industry humming along.

But amid all the publicity about this return to late night, I've got a few concerns about the carrot-topped funny man's re-emergence. (those concerns are magnified if TMZ's leak about who O'Brien first guest, chosen by online poll, is accurate. See who it is by clicking here.

Here now are my Top 5 reasons Conan may go bust

1 People are tired of talking late night, already. Even at the height of NBC's late-night woes, the drawn-out humiliation of O'Brien and slow comeback of middlebrow Leno began to grate on TV fans. Already, O'Brien's return has sparked recap stories in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and TV Guide. Will viewers react by deciding they've heard enough?

2 He's taking on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert at their height. Conan debuts during the Daily Show and Colbert Report time slots when both rival shows have never been hotter. Fresh off the Rally to Restore Sanity and an interview with the president, Stewart's show drew more viewers age 18 to 49 in October than any other late-night talk show, including Leno and David Letterman. (One caveat; Stewart's cable ratings don't include reruns, while the network's figures do.) Can O'Brien stand against that trend?

3 His first lineup of celebrity guests doesn't bring much celebrity. Other than Oscar-winner Tom Hanks and Mad Men star Jon Hamm, O'Brien's first week of guests include relatively underwhelming names: musician Jack White, actor Seth Rogen, and the band Fistful of Mercy. Yeah, it's a lineup calibrated for his young, Facebook-savvy fans (his first guest was chosen by online vote, even). But it also recalls a major criticism of O'Brien's NBC debut: not enough big stars.

4 The preview promos and online snippets aren't that funny. Slow-motion clips of O'Brien washing his desk slathered in soap. A bit in the TBS blimp shouting insults at an old girlfriend. A four-minute preview "Show Zero" held in the office's conference room and posted online. (The joke: everything on the Internet is fast-paced.) All these bits recall another O'Brien criticism: He's often amusing, but not hilarious.

5 Jimmy Fallon is showing him how it's done. Just as O'Brien flowered after two years of mediocrity, Fallon seems to have found his groove as the new post-Leno guy, rocking the Emmy Awards as host and providing viral moments that reach fans outside his show (most recently, his thrilling history of hip-hop jam with Justin Timberlake and The Roots). Fallon's success highlights another problem O'Brien had, until he was leaving the Tonight Show: Not enough of his bits reached fans who weren't already watching.

[Last modified: Monday, November 8, 2010 10:33am]


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