(If Ted Thompson was running NBC, Conan O'Brien might still work for them)
Tonight at 11:35 PM, Conan O'Brien will take the stage for the final time as the host of the Tonight Show, only seven months after getting promoted from the bowels of the 12:35 timeslot. By now, after two weeks of frenzied coverage, everyone should know what the situation is: Conan O'Brien will receive a $32.5 million buyout from his contract at NBC. Jay Leno, who had hosted the Tonight Show for 16 years before O'Brien was promoted, will return as the host of the Tonight Show on March 1, just after the Winter Olympics are over. As part of the agreement, O'Brien will be able to sign on with another network as early as next fall and is presumed to jump to the FOX network, which hasn't had a notable late night host since Arsenio Hall in the early 90's.
Although this story came as a surprise to pretty much everybody, we in the sports world have seen this sort of thing before, and not all that long ago either. Yes, if there's one man who can accurately be compared to Jeff Zucker (the head of NBC's programming department), that man is Ted Thompson, the GM of the Green Bay Packers who just two years ago had to make his own controversial pick.
Both NBC's and the Green Bay Packers' issues stemmed from the same basic problem: they had both promised their most important job to two different people, and were naively trying to keep both men on at the same time. With the Packers it was Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, and with NBC it's Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno. The Packers had named Aaron Rodgers their quarterback of the future when Favre at last announced his retirement, and NBC had named O'Brien as the host of the Tonight Show in 2004 as a negotiating tactic to keep him on board.
In both scenarios, the man who was getting replaced was not as forthright in stepping aside as he had initially stated. Favre un-retired in the middle of 2008 and suddenly wanted his old job back. Meanwhile, Jay Leno, after disastrous results at the 10 PM hour, suddenly wanted the 11:35 timeslot back, in spite of his previous remarks that it was Conan's time to host the Tonight Show.
Both the Packers and NBC suddenly found themselves with an enormous decision on who to side with: the savvy veteran who had done so well for them for almost 20 years, or the plucky new-comer who had waited so long for the job, and had even been promised it? In both cases, the issue was the same. The old guy could produce better numbers in the short run, but long-term, it was probably better to have the guy who could stick around for another 20 years. At their age, neither Favre nor Leno will last as long as Rodgers or O'Brien.
It's at this point that the two parties differ drastically in their decisions. The Packers at first had no idea what to do, and even offered Favre a ludicrous 10-year, $25 million deal to just sit home and do nothing. Ted Thompson, like Jeff Zucker, was rightfully chastised in the media for his buffoonish handling of his own self-made crisis.. However, Thompson made the critical decision to trade Favre to the New York Jets while naming Aaron Rodgers the team's starting QB. Although Favre has played fantastic these past two seasons, and could even lead Minnesota to the Super Bowl, Rodgers has been just as good and, unlike Favre, will still be in the league 10 and 15 years down the line.
NBC, on the other hand, took the opposite approach. Conan O'Brien, like Aaron Rodgers, was the clear victor in terms of public support, and like Rodgers he planned to leave the organization if he wasn't given the position he had been promised. But ratings-ravaged NBC, desperate to make whatever money they could, decided to go with Jay Leno at the 11:35 slot, pushing Conan's Tonight Show into tomorrow category. O'Brien balked at NBC's offer and, just as Rodgers would have done, is now stepping away from the company. His final show airs later tonight, barely a year after he and his staff moved from New York City to Los Angeles, California.
Meanwhile, one pressing matter still remains: how does Jeff Zucker still have a job? How do you take a network that in the 1990's was the pinnacle of success -- they owned the rights of the NBA, MLB, NFL and Olympics, while producing shows like Friends, Frasier, Seinfeld, E.R. and Law & Order -- bring it to oblivion, cause the company to lose hundreds of millions of dollars, all without producing a single hit television program, and keep your job?
Clearly, there's only one solution. Jeff Zucker must be fired, and in his place, NBC should find a bright visionary who can better run the network -- perhaps a Harvard-educated red-head who might just be available. If only such a man existed...