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How NBC Gave Conan His Groove Back

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NBC and Conan O’Brien have finally signed the deal making the host’s split from the Tonight Show after this week official. You can read the details here. The question I want to ask this morning—and there are a lot of questions going forward from here—is: was shafting O’Brien on the Tonight Show the best thing NBC could have done for him? And did the network just spend $40 million-plus to develop a talent for another network?

OK, those of you who do not appreciate looking at a video of The Masturbating Bear atop this post may not think O’Brien got shafted at all. I do, and I’ve written enough about that, but one thing I think we can agree on is that Conan’s Tonight ratings were weak.

What if Conan existed in another universe, one where NBC didn’t screw up its primetime schedule and have to immediately move Jay Leno—to avoid a (possibly bigger) payout to Leno, to keep the affiliates from rebelling and to get a headache out of the way for its buyer Comcast? What if, in that universe, NBC gave Conan the three years or so that it gave Jay to turn around his own ratings when he took over Tonight  from Johnny Carson?

Conan might have turned it around. Or he might have just puttered along. He might have fallen into a groove—as he did after an awkward beginning at Late Night. Or he might never have figured out how to get comfortable in the mass-market time slot. And a couple years from now, he might have gotten axed anyway, without the argument that he didn’t get enough of a chance.

We’ll never know. What I do know is that in the last two weeks, Conan’s been on fire. Cast as the underdog, with nothing to lose, his comedy has been sharp and true to his identity, and he’s been killing in the ratings, blowing away David Letterman in the 18 to 49 demo that ad rates are based on.

Now, obviously the ratings are the result of publicity. Sort of. It’s unlikely he would have sustained this rise had NBC had a change of heart and kept him at Tonight. On the other hand, Jay Leno has gotten just as much attention out of this fiasco, and his ratings have been mostly flat; David Letterman has been making headlines by whaling on Leno with gusto, but he hasn’t gotten a similar boost.

Temporary or not, in other words, NBC has just provided a massive new sampling, an underdog-hero image and a potential future following in a valuable demo group—to a guy they’re paying millions to go somewhere else. I don’t know if Fox is going to offer Conan a show, but if they were interested two weeks ago, they have to be a hell of a lot more interested now. Well played, NBC.

Coupled with the ratings is that Conan’s Tonight Show has simply been better to watch. He’s always been better at absurd, off-the-wall humor than topical, off-the-headlines comedy. The past two weeks, though, have shown how acute Conan’s comedy can be when it’s also about something.

This was also true of David Letterman: he started out as the guy who liked to drop objects off tall buildings, but he developed into a cutting, even impassioned, exposer of all things phony. Conan’s woes at NBC have given him a target and a focus, and I don’t know when I expect to see a funnier late-night sketch than him dressing up the world’s most expensive car like a mouse in order to waste $1.5 million of NBC’s money.

NBC could argue that if that guy had been on stage for the last seven months, they wouldn’t be in this situation. Maybe, maybe not. In any case, they’ve now put that guy on stage, doing an audition for a possible direct competitor. (The one saving possibility for NBC in all this: Conan could well cut much more into Letterman’s audience than he would into Leno’s.)

I don’t honestly know what’s next for Conan, but if he gets something valuable out of his ouster, it’s not the eight-digit payout. It’s knowing how good he can be when he does work he believes in—and makes every show like he believes it could be his last.