Farewell, Conan: Don't Give Yourself Away

Fare thee well, Conando.
About two weeks before I graduated from college, my best friend got out of the poisonous relationship he'd been in for five years. He was ecstatic at the possibilities before him, and those final moments of school held for him a wonder and freedom he didn't even know he'd been missing. He's since moved on and is now married to the girl that was right for him.

I thought a lot about that time as I watched Conan O'Brien wrap his time behind the desk of NBC's The Tonight Show. After a series of events that left Conan unwilling to host a Tonight Show that wouldn't air in its 11:35 ET slot and subsequently set the stage for his departure form NBC, he was freer and looser -- just plain happier -- than he'd been since he took over the show last summer. He was never a dour host on Tonight; you just got the sense that he was always a little spooked at moving to the grown-up table, and that he wanted to balance his earnest silliness with a kind of reverence for and deference to the decades that had come before him. In his final moments at NBC, when he knew he was only a few hours from the door, he finally had the fire and verve to be the host we know he can be. His announcement on his penultimate show, "Let's have fun on television," was the mission statement he'd been missing.

But here's where I admit something, and I bet you do, too: I watched Conan more in the past couple weeks than I had in a long time. Sure, I would check him out when he hosted Late Night, and I tuned into his first episode of The Tonight Show in June and the next few, as well. But I didn't always tune in. Sometimes I'd watch Jon Stewart and stick around for Stephen Colbert over on Comedy Central; sometimes I'd watch a program I'd recorded earlier in the evening; sometimes I'd actually interact with other humans. The point is, I love Conan, and I barely watched. I've spent some time thinking about why that is, and I think I've come up with an answer.

Basically, we -- by which I mean the mostly younger people to whom Conan tends to appeal -- like the idea of Conan just as much as the actual person, and since liking the idea is easier and requires less of a time commitment, it tends to overshadow the show itself. We want Conan to be around not because we will always watch him, but so he'll be there if we can watch him. It's the difference between an active and passive fandom, and there's almost no other place it makes sense or could even be considered than in the marathon that is late-night talk shows. A TV series will run for a few seasons if you're lucky, but a late-night staple like The Tonight Show isn't going anywhere. It's aired right after the local news since it began in 1954, meaning that this thing hasn't moved since the Eisenhower administration. As such, the show isn't something viewers need to hurriedly watch lest they feel left out; rather, it's one of the few constants in television programming. And when you look at the time the hosts have held their spots, with Johnny Carson running 30 years and Jay Leno for 17 (to say nothing of the three- and five-year stints, respectively, that Steve Allen and Jack Paar got), you feel comfortable assuming that the show's current incarnation likely isn't going anywhere any time soon. We didn't watch Conan because we figured we didn't need to. If we wanted him, he'd be there.

But of course, that's not exactly what NBC would have us do, and you can see why. They want a hit out of the gate, and they want it to stay strong. It didn't help that Conan's ratings were below what Leno's were for most of his run at The Tonight Show; in addition to catering to a youthful audience that liked him but didn't necessarily feel the urge to watch regularly, Conan was going for almost a completely different group of people than Leno, period. The kind of people who are just as used to watching late-night highlights on Hulu as they are to seeing them as they air. You mix those two things -- the lack of urgency with the access to non-TV sources -- and that's the ballgame as far as the network is concerned. It doesn't matter that Leno needed time to build his own audience and find a rhythm, or that from 1992-1995, Leno lost to CBS' Late Show With David Letterman. NBC's flagship talk show had been tops for more than a decade and they wanted it to stay that way, and when it didn't, they reacted. NBC Universal TV entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin said it was "the cost of doing business," but that doesn't change the fact that their proposed change was a remarkably shortsighted way to fix things.

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