An acquaintance of mine is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. It’s a birthright he’s proud to wear because he’s a L.A. native. As Conan O’Brien’s final appearance on the Tonight Show came to a close Friday night, I sent a tweet (a short message on Twitter) to him that the last two weeks of the late night debacle between O’Brien, Jay Leno, and NBC reminded me of the near-potential messy situation that Lakers owner Jerry Buss had to deal with. Buss had two superstars on his team: veteran center Shaquille O’Neal and a young point guard named Kobe Bryant.
Buss was faced with making a decision on whether to re-sign Shaq or let Shaq opt for free agency and re-sign Bryant to a long-term contract. Buss opted to let Shaq leave and kept Bryant due to Kobe’s age, and a chance for head coach Phil Jackson to build a team around a then-promising young superstar. That decision has eventually helped the Lakers. They have played in the last two NBA finals, winning the title last season.
Buss could have re-signed both of them, but their conflicting personalities and growing disdain for each other would have caused serious harm in the locker room and for the Lakers organization as a whole.
Ironically, my acquaintance had the same thought about how NBC couldn’t decide on Conan or Jay, so they decided to keep both and it backfired. But, I’ll let him talk about it on his show on Des Moines Local Live this upcoming Thursday (5pm-6pm).
By now, everyone knows how all of this went down. For the record, I respect Jay Leno. I think he’s a decent comedian. However, I was not hip to the “vanilla” comedy schtick he does. Conan is more “intelligent” funny and edgy, which most viewers appeal to.
Jay does deserves some scorn for not keeping his word to “retire” after his run on The Tonight Show. NBC, in fear of losing Leno, decides to keep him on and put him on prime time. Five years before that in 2004, O’Brien was being courted by CBS and ABC, and NBC, in fear again, re-signed him and told him The Tonight Show was his, once Jay leaves in 2009.
There is a motto in sports that can applied to what is hands down the biggest story/soap opera so far in 2010.
Don’t hate the playa, hate the game.
In 2004, NBC decided to re-sign the kid (Conan) and let the old man walk (Jay), in spite of the fact that Leno has owned David Letterman for nearly a decade. When the transfer of power drew near, NBC freaked out about losing Leno and his success at 10:30, and decided to carve out an hour variety show for Leno. Leno didn’t help his cause by not “retiring” and walking away. Leno leaving would have not hurt him. He would have picked up work no matter where he went.
There are critics who will say that Conan wasn’t very good at 10:30. That argument has a lot of holes. First, most of the stuff Conan did at 11:30, like Triumph the Insulting Dog, he couldn’t bring over to 10:30. Secondly, seven months on the job, after moving from NYC to L.A., wasn’t enough time to build on a new audience base besides his own loyal fans. Lastly, Leno had to spend months building an audience base as well. Remember when he struggled out of the gate? Yeah, I don’t remember either, thanks to Hugh Grant.
Anyway, NBC tried to have their cake and eat it, but they also wanted the ham, the mashed potatoes, the salad, and the keg of beer.
Jay took advantage of NBC’s indecision and was able to weasel a prime time show out of them. Again, NBC, out of fear, tries to move Jay back to 10:35 and peg Conan to 11:35. Why not tell Jay “thank you for your contributions to NBC, but this prime time show didn’t work. You’re free to sign up with anyone else.”
NBC got greedy. Plain and simple. They didn’t want to part with their two “stars”, so by moving Leno back to late night, they would have prevented Conan from having a chance to affix his identity on The Tonight Show.
NBC is now left holding the bag, and deservedly so. Conan got what he wanted, Jay got what he wanted, and NBC ended up with…