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No Deal or No Deal: Did NBC Ever Want Conan to Stay?

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Let it not be said that Conan O’Brien lacks company loyalty. Even as O’Brien was busy getting publicly screwed over by his network, he was on the Tonight Show, making fun of his own situation while giving a plug to Howie Mandel and Deal or No Deal:

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O’Brien’s monologue was energized last night, too. (He came on to extended applause, which he silenced, saying, “I may not have much time!”) But the No Deal segment—involving opportunities like playing the gay neighbor on an untitled Ed Asner sitcom—was maybe the most appropriate. I can’t help but feel in all of this as if NBC has been making Conan an offer meant to be too unpalatable to accept.

I mean, look, I’m sure NBC would have loved it if Jay went to 11:35, Conan to go to 12:05, the ratings were great and everyone was happy. But it also had to know that was not going to happen. Leaving aside the personal slight and demotion, NBC would again be setting up O’Brien to be undercut by a redundant lead-in show, then take the blame for the failure.

Instead, NBC is executing the sleaziest strategy since, well, the last time it gave Jay Leno the Tonight Show. (Way to introduce yourself as the classy new guy, Jeff Gaspin!) Just as when it offered Conan Tonight in 2004, the network seems to be driving its decision-making on the basis of avoiding contractual payouts. If it fires Conan, it owes an astronomical sum. If he quits, hopefully the network gets off cheap.

And if Conan were to have accepted—well, I don’t think anyone believes NBC intended him to stay in the Tonight Show longer than contractually necessary. The payout window passed, it could declare that, yes, moving Tonight to midnight was a mistake, that O’Brien is a great talent but wrong for the this job, and then give Leno his Tonight Show do-over.

Now, instead, it looks like all that remains is to negotiate Conan’s exit. And as for who’ll take over the Tonight Show when Leno finally retires to spend time with his cars, or when his demographics get too old for the advertisers? That’s tomorrow’s problem! We can’t afford long-term thinking!

It is hard now not to see this as having been the plan, or at least the Plan B, all along. We move Leno to 10. If it works, beautiful! If it doesn’t, worst-case scenario, we can always get Leno back at 11:35—where Conan’s ratings will have been hurt by the fall-off from Leno, anyway.

Welcome to the worst-case scenario.