So with his release of an eloquent, measured, but firm statement today, Conan O’Brien begins the process of untethering himself from the shackles of NBC and The Tonight Show. The question is, where does he go from here?
As I said yesterday, I think going to Fox would be a mistake. I still think so. Going to Fox gets Conan an 11 p.m. time period, where he’ll be competing for younger viewers with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Yes, I know, O’Brien will instantly reach more viewers on Fox than Stewart and Colbert do on their cable outlets, but there’s a lot more crossover between Conan’s young/hip viewers and the Comedy Central stalwarts than there is for any other late-night host. Hosting the Tonight Show opposite Letterman, O’Brien automatically looked young and fresh. Hosting — oh, let’s say Fox brands it Conan! — against Stewart and Colbert, he’ll look as though he’s not as engaged in current events and lose some of his young viewers.
Advantage to leaving The Tonight Show: He’ll be free to do as he pleases. (As so many of you have said, Welcome back, Masturbating Bear!) But doing as he pleases could lead him to become more insular, more assiduously wacky. One of the few good things about the mantle of The Tonight Show was that it was forcing O’Brien to re-think his approach, and it was paying off creatively.
There’s at least one other, remote possibility: ABC will offer to cancel Nightline and move Jimmy Kimmel back a half-hour. That’s really tough: Going up against Jay and Dave, he’d get pounded in the ratings, I think, don’t you? And while Kimmel isn’t the power-player any of these other guys is, he’d still be plenty angry about that move. Maybe angry enough to go to… Fox.
One more point: The saddest thing, from his remarkable statement today, is that it’s clear that Conan O’Brien has much more of a sense of history and a respect for the Tonight Show legacy than either his NBC bosses or many of his viewers.
What do you think Conan should do?
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For more on Conan and late-night: Conan O’Brien expresses ‘enormous personal disappointment’ over NBC’s ‘Tonight Show’ decision