Conan and the 11:35 Question

Trending topics are blowing up about one of my favorite areas right now, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t weigh in on the Leno-Conan-Fallon(-Daly?!) programming parallelogram. Topline: I’m still a little peeved about the fact Leno even came back, and last weekend’s rumors that the primetime slot was getting axed in favor of some schedule shuffling seemed less fair to me than the NFL’s overtime rules.

Shortly after Conan ended his stint on Late Night last winter, I weighed in with some thoughts on what would happen to the audience he had gained in the era of DVR. It was his chance to take that audience and add in the established late night crowd. Reading back through that post, that’s not what I see now, and this portion seems unfortunately optimistic given the last day of news:

As much as I care about the media impact of Conan’s move from an online media perspective, I also genuinely am interested in the waves he’s going to make in late night television history. I’m going to come with him, that’s for sure…If not for anything, it’s because of his originality – and the fact that he’s proud of it.

I was trying to voice my own support while sneaking in the argument about timeshifting and its impact on late night TV. A year later (or so), I recognize that it was one portion that could not be defined by the new, instead it actually needed the tradition to succeed. Embracing that history for as long as possible has kept it relevant, and ignoring it had its negative impact: the lack of an audience for Primetime Leno hurt local news broadcasts, which then hurt the NBC line up and then led us to where we are now.

Conan came out huge today with his recognition of the tradition of the Tonight Show along with his willingness to step out of the way to protect it. The change in front of him is not dictated by emerging technology, social media, or anything we usually blame media downfalls for – just the old standard scapegoat of broadcast executives in search of the cheapest dollars out there.

I don’t think Conan’s threat to resign is empty, in the slightest. It’s heartfelt, sincere, and in the same tone he concluded his 16-year Late Night run with:

So it has come to this: I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it. My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The Tonight Show. But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction. Some people will make the argument that with DVRs and the Internet a time slot doesn’t matter. But with the Tonight Show, I believe nothing could matter more.

Does 11:35 matter? Unbelievably. History matters in one hand, but the future would matter more. The change would leave Letterman and CBS in a position to dominate (well, more), Conan would never be able to challenge Late Show’s 30 minute head start, and somewhere down the road when someone does take over at the Worldwide Pants helm, they’d have the advantage of momentum. Just like the original primetime plan, this move keeps NBC behind the eight ball, and without its gamechanger.

11:35 was supposed to be a place to grow Conan’s audience, not shrink it. NBC, fix this before it is too late.




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