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Conanundrum: Shaming the Shameless

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Can NBC be publicly shamed into keeping Conan O’Brien at the Tonight Show?

No, probably not. Let’s get that out of the way. These are TV-businesspeople we’re talking about.

Still, the level of public mockery and pressure that NBC has come in for in the last few days has been impressive—and it could have benefits for O’Brien, even if it doesn’t save his job.

As Brian Stelter reports, social media have been mobilized. Polls have been taken. Other networks’ late-night hosts have taken sides. (Though Jimmy Kimmel appears on Leno tonight, so feelings can’t be that hard. I think.)

Even Hitler has gotten in on the debate, thanks to the latest twist on the Downfall Internet meme:

History’s greatest monster is right! We should listen to him!

What complicates this controversy—that is, makes it more awesome—is that NBC has managed to get itself into a public dispute involving two comedians who have nightly shows on its own air. Last night, Conan O’Brien’s monologue got, if anything, more pointed, with O’Brien taking a direct shot at Leno: “I just want to say to the kids out there watching: You can do anything you want in life. Unless Jay Leno wants to do it too.” In another joke, he did something I never expected to hear a late-night host do: cited his poll numbers, noting that 83 percent of voters in a TV Guide poll wanted him to stay on the show.

There are two lines of attack there. One is to remind NBC execs that, even if they’re personally shameless, they’ve put Leno’s image at real risk. (Indeed, between this and Leno’s crying victim in his own monologue, Jay and Conan are basically engaging in an intra-network debate over Leno’s perception.)

The second is to remind NBC of an important factor: that while Conan’s Tonight ratings have indeed been lower than Leno’s, his supporters are more intense and motivated. Now, some of this is driven by technology and generational factors, of course: much of Leno’s fanbase is not in shall-we-say the Twitter demographic, so Team Conan owns that forum. But there’s a larger issue: Jay’s fans enjoy him and like him, whereas Conan’s fanbase is smaller, but loves him and is active about it.

It’s a classic dichotomy in TV today: breadth of viewership vs. depth of viewership. The old network-TV model is set up to reward breadth of viewership, that is, having a whole lot of people like you enough to watch, even if they don’t really, really love you. To advertisers, an eyeball is an eyeball, whether it’s in the socket of an intense or a casual fan.

The rise of cable began to change this. Channels like HBO made their fortune by cultivating polarizing shows and intense audiences: smaller fanbases, but ones that love what they love enough to pay for it.

Now, NBC is still mainly an ad-driven business, which is another reason why it ultimately goes with Leno in this choice; it’s still more motivated to pursue big audiences, even if they’re less committed.

But even in network TV, today there are ways to leverage an intense fan base. That’s what’s made Lost valuable to ABC, even though its ratings have dropped from its early years: its fans buy DVDs and will follow it absolutely anywhere, to the bitter end.

Likewise, Conan O’Brien may know that he ultimately can’t make NBC choose him. But he can remind them there’s a price to be paid if they’re jerks about it. For one thing, a host with an intense following is more likely to take viewers with him when he goes (say to Fox), as opposed to a host a lot of people just kinda like.

For another, as Aaron Barnhart points out, this fight is not just about who gets the Tonight Show. That fight may well already be over but for the details. But those details include whether NBC tries to hold Conan to a noncompete deal, putting him and his staff on ice before they can move on to another network. If NBC plays hardball, things could get ugly for them: PR-wise, Leno-wise and alienating-viewers-wise. (And fellow comics like Kimmel and Letterman seem to be signaling that they have Conan’s back.)

That part of the shame strategy might work. I don’t think shaming will get NBC to un-screw-over Conan. But the new regime at NBC, especially new network head Jeff Gaspin, do seem to care about PR: judging from their press tour presentation to critics last weekend, they seem to want to be seen as the good cops,  bringing back scripted dramas in primetime. They may not be willing to blow whatever PR goodwill they’ve gained by ending the Leno experiment (not just in the press but in Hollywood) by being gratuitously hard-nosed.

Or not. But we’ll at least get some more good monologues out of it.

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