Wednesday, January 13, 2010

O’Brien Tells NBC Good Night

NBC may control its airwaves, but apparently it does not control Conan O’Brien.

Less than a week after NBC told him it intended to move his “Tonight Show” to a new time, 12:05 a.m., Mr. O’Brien said he would not agree to what he considered a demotion for the institution of “The Tonight Show” — and his own career — by going along with the network’s plan to push him back a half-hour to make room for his most recent predecessor, Jay Leno.

Mr. O’Brien’s statement Tuesday said that he so respected the institution of “The Tonight Show” that he could not participate in what “I honestly believe is its destruction.”

Pointedly, Mr. O’Brien did not resign or indicate he would not show up for work. But an executive at the network who declined to be identified because of continuing negotiations said that Mr. O’Brien would leave once a financial settlement was reached.

“For the record,” Conan O’Brien wryly noted in a statement addressed to “People of Earth” outlining his refusal to host NBC’s “The Tonight Show” if it was shoved back half-an-hour, “I am truly sorry about my hair; it’s always been that way.”

This is the week of the television winter press tour from Pasadena, when the networks traditionally roll out their offerings for midseason replacement shows. But there’s only one replacement show that anyone here is talking about: an NBC family drama bloodier than “The Tudors” and more inexplicable than “Lost,” a tragedy about comedy featuring an imperious emperor and his two dueling jesters in a once-mighty and now-blighted kingdom.

As NBC reeled from the fallout of Jeff Zucker’s tacit admission that his attempt to refashion the customary way Americans watch prime time had failed, Hollywood was ablaze with baldenfreude.

In a town where nobody makes less than they’re worth, and most people pull in an obscene amount more, there has been a single topic of discussion: How does Jeff Zucker keep rising and rising while the fortunes of NBC keep falling and falling?

The 44-year-old is a very smart guy who made a success as a wunderkind at “The Today Show,” but many in the Hollywood community have always regarded him as a condescending and arrogant East Coaster, a network Napoleon who never bothered to learn about developing shows and managing talent. At a moment when Zucker’s comedy double-fault was smashing relationships in L.A., he showed the talent of a Mafia boss for separating himself from the hit when he went and played in a New York City tennis tournament. (He lost in the first round.)

“Zucker is a case study in the most destructive media executive ever to exist,” said a honcho at another network. “You’d have to tell me who else has taken a once-great network and literally destroyed it.”

Zucker’s critics are ranting that first he killed comedy, losing the NBC franchise of Thursday night “Must See TV,” where “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “Will & Grace” once hilariously reigned; then he killed drama, failing to develop successors to the formidable “ER,” “West Wing,” and “Law & Order”; then he killed the 10 o’clock hour by putting Jay Leno on at a time when people expect to be told a story; and then he killed late night by putting on a quirky redhead who did not have the bland mass-market appeal of Leno and who couldn’t compete with the peerless late-night comedian NBC had stupidly lost 16 years ago, David Letterman.

Zucker is a master at managing up with bosses and calculating cost-per-hour benefits, but even though he made money on cable shows, he could not program network to save his life. He started by greenlighting the regrettable “Emeril” and ended by having the aptly titled “The Biggest Loser” as one of his only winners.

Certainly, Zucker greatly underestimated the deeply ingrained viewing patterns of older Americans, who have always watched the networks in a particular way. The kids come home, do their homework, the family has dinner. They’re in front of the TV by 8, and 8:30 is known as the dog-walking slot. At 9, it’s time for more comedy. As they get tired, they like to watch a fictional drama that leads into the real drama of the late local news. And then they like to laugh again so that those images of war or a local murder are not the last thing they see before bed.

America has been watching a very specific sort of guy at 11:35 p.m. for half a century, one who chuckles as Mary Tyler Moore or Sarah Jessica Parker tells an amusing story and lets us drift off by the time some stand-up comic or blow-up starlet tells a salacious joke.

Zucker rolled the dice because he wanted to show Jeff Immelt that he could get beyond his Ben Silverman debacle and get prime time to stop bleeding money (a problem he created). But he learned the hard way that it is a lot to undo.

As Mark Harris wrote in New York magazine in November, “Zucker has often behaved like the grudging caretaker of a dying giant. ... As much as Jeff Zucker would like to cast the blame elsewhere, substituting number-crunching defensiveness for enterprise, adventure, and showmanship is what helped get NBC into this mess.”

Consumed with the NBC game of musical late-night chairs, Hollywood machers play a game of trying to figure out the last time there has been a blunder of such outlandish proportions. Despite everything, Zucker just got his contract renewed for three years with the Comcast acquisition of NBC. “Not since J. Pierrepont Finch in ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’ has an executive failed upwards in so obvious a fashion,” marveled one TV writer.

Another called the Leno experiment the worst mistake made by anyone in television since an ABC Entertainment executive told the Chicago affiliate chief that the network didn’t want to own and broadcast the new daytime talk show hosted by a young black woman. Her name: Oprah Winfrey.

By Hollywood standards, Mr. O’Brien’s letter was an extraordinary gesture — releasing a statement to make public his anger at the company paying him tens of millions of dollars before he even reached a settlement.

The closest episode in history may be when Jack Paar walked off the set of “The Tonight Show” in a huff over corporate censorship.

Mr. Paar returned to the show within a month in 1960, but few are predicting a reconciliation between Mr. O’Brien and the network.

NBC executives continued Tuesday to work toward a financial settlement, though some indicated increasing impatience with Mr. O’Brien’s effort to blame the network for the three-car pile-up in late night.

The host, who saw his brief run as host of “Tonight” cut short when NBC decided to restore Mr. Leno to the 11:35 p.m. time period, has been increasingly upset about how he believes he was treated by NBC’s management.

A representative of the host said Tuesday that Mr. O’Brien finally reached the point on Monday where he “sat up all night drafting the statement.”

The statement also took NBC to task for not giving the show more time or supplying stronger lead-in audiences, which could be interpreted as a shot at Mr. Leno’s poor performance at 10 p.m. (Though Mr. O’Brien mentioned Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon in his statement, he never referred to Mr. Leno by name, only by the title of his show.)

“After only seven months,” Mr. O’Brien wrote, “with my ‘Tonight Show’ in its infancy, NBC has decided to react to their terrible difficulties in prime time by making a change in their long-established late-night schedule.”

He hosted the show Tuesday night, even as negotiations, which one participant described as intense, continued throughout the day. But Mr. O’Brien did not hold back on criticizing NBC during his performance.

“Welcome to NBC — where our new slogan is, ‘No longer just screwing up prime time,’ ” he said.

He was also self-effacing in his jokes. “Hello, my name is Conan O’Brien, and I may soon be available for children’s parties.”

Though some rumors appeared saying NBC might be lining up guest hosts, NBC quietly dismissed that notion. Indeed, such a move could have legal implications because it might be interpreted as NBC firing Mr. O’Brien, which could lead to a bigger settlement for him.

Jeff Gaspin, the chairman of NBC Entertainment, who broached the idea last week of shifting the late-night lineup, said he was motivated by trying to retain both stars, not to drive Mr. O’Brien away. But other NBC executives indicated privately that they would be satisfied with a new late-night lineup with Mr. Leno back at “The Tonight Show” at 11:35 and Mr. Fallon settling in at the “Late Night” show at 12:35.

Those executives will apparently get their wish. But questions will linger about whether Mr. Leno will return automatically to his former position of dominance at 11:35 against Mr. Letterman’s show at CBS.

“You have to wonder if Jay is damaged goods after all this,” said one former longtime network programmer who did not want to be identified criticizing the network. “But if they give him ‘The Tonight Show’ back, maybe it ends up all right after a while. But it just seems so unfair to Conan.”

The release of Mr. O’Brien’s statement complicated an already messy legal and programming situation. NBC executives have quietly complained for at least a month that Mr. O’Brien himself was responsible for declining ratings on the show because he had not broadened his appeal from his days hosting NBC’s 12:35 a.m. show, “Late Night.”

NBC has also made it clear that it does not believe it breached Mr. O’Brien’s contract in any way because it offered him the chance to continue on “Tonight.” NBC executives said that Mr. O’Brien’s contract did not include any language that guaranteed the show had to begin at 11:35 p.m.

The counterargument from Mr. O’Brien’s representatives has been that no such language was necessary in this case because “The Tonight Show” has followed the late local news in cities across America for 60 years.

Plenty of money is involved. Mr. O’Brien is owed about two and a half years on a contract that pays him $10 million to $20 million a year.

Mr. O’Brien expressed hope in his statement that the issue could be resolved so “that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of, for a company that values our work.” But though the Fox network has made its potential interest in Mr. O’Brien public in comments this week, Mr. O’Brien said, “I currently have no other offer and honestly have no idea what happens next.”

There would be questions, too, about Mr. O’Brien’s potential at another network after the disappointment at “Tonight.”

Mr. O’Brien’s future could also be complicated by how his contract is settled. Even if NBC settles with him, it could enforce a clause that keeps him off television for a year or more.

from New York Times

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