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And the winner is…   

If there is one thing we’ve learned so far this year, it’s the stupidity of your casual television viewer.   

For some reason, everyone has an opinion on the Leno VS. Conan VS. NBC debacle, a collision that is both unimportant and important at the same time. For pretty much the same reasons.   

I am reminded of the mob mentality: You’re either with us or against us.   

Conan O’Brien has been one of the few comedic heroes of our generation. In his much-publicized release from NBC, he’s come out not only the hero, but the martyr.   

So what happened to make this all…well…happen? If you don’t already know, Conan signed a contract with NBC in 2004 to overtake The Tonight Show five years later. Jay Leno’s job was being outsourced to a younger generation. Fair enough. When that five years rolled on by, Jay Leno, not ready to retire, signed a contract with NBC for a new show, in primetime.   

In the past ten years, there has been a new precedent set for primetime. Comedy is out, and drama is all the rage. So, understandably, ratings for Leno’s show weren’t all that hot. But neither were the ratings for Conan’s Tonight Show.   

Flashback: When Johnny Carson retired in 1992, it was widely believed and accepted that David Letterman would be the Tonight Show heir. He was not. Jay Leno, Carson’s permanent guest host, got the nod and stepped in. Letterman, feeling slighted, left the network.   

This seems oddly familiar, no?   

Strangely, Jay Leno has always been a controversial figure, not because of his PG-13 humor or politics, but because of his involvement with The Tonight Show.   

Television audiences have shown themselves to be largely in Conan’s corner. But let’s be fair, here. The media hasn’t exactly been kind to Leno in the process. It’s logical that most viewers would side with Conan.   

Flashback: When Letterman went to CBS, he was the late-night ratings leader. For two years. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that Leno became a legitimate contender. But once he found his audience, he held onto them pretty strongly throughout his tenure (the first one) at The Tonight Show.   

A big deal has been made of the fact that Conan was only given 7 months to get the ratings NBC wanted. Apparently, NBC was expecting some carry-over from Conan’s Late Night that they just weren’t getting. This suggests that, ultimately, it was all about ratings.   

It wasn’t.   

This whole I’m With Coco campaign is ridiculous. The American attention span has decreased significantly since 1992. People missed Conan on Late Night, of that I’m sure. It was nice to see Andy Richter back in the fold, but Conan’s Tonight Show was missing so much from Late Night with Conan. But it wasn’t just Conan. And it wasn’t just Leno’s primetime series. Let’s be honest, late night talk shows have been lame and getting lamer for the past five or six years. The material, for my generation, hit its peak in the late ’90s, what with Monica Lewinsky. And then that silly George W. Bush guy running for office. That was late night humor.   

I'm With Coco

The best America can do.

 

So yes, let’s be honest. Conan got a raw deal, in that he wasn’t given a whole lot of time to get the ratings that NBC wanted. But Leno got a raw deal, too. The raw deal, however, didn’t come from any of the involved parties. Not from NBC, Conan or Leno. The raw deal came from the American television audience.   

Think about the modern expectations for television programs. They are minimal.   

Seinfeld, saviour to NBC, was constantly at risk of being cancelled every season until its 4th. The show that would one day go down as one of the finest ever produced, hung by a thread. For years. If you look at the ratings that Seinfeld received in those first 3 years, it would be considered a hit by today’s standards.   

Today, television programs are produced primarily with the intention of selling you things. Some take a very direct route, American Idol, and are massively successful. Some, Arrested Development, subvert that notion and turn it into a running gag, and are cancelled after only 3 seasons, despite the number of honorable awards earned.   

In the battle over late night, who wins? Nobody. Because the American television audience just proved its worth to every corporate entity involved in television production.   

Flashback: Mary Tyler Moore ran from 1970 to 1977. More than thirty years ago, regular episodes ran longer than 25 minutes, not counting product commercials.   

Flashback: The Simpsons began airing, in its sitcom form, in 1989. Still on the air after 20 years, it has lost more than 2 minutes of air-time to product commercials. The average running-time now is just above 21 minutes, not counting commercials.   

I’m with Coco. To the extent that Conan refused to let NBC change what he deemed a cherished American institution, I support him. However, I feel that this martyrdom is about 15 years too late. Television isn’t for television programs anymore. It’s for commercials. And if the American audience that supports Coco had been paying attention, they might have noticed in time to fix it.   

The networks don’t even do what you tell them to, anymore. You now do their bidding. Way to go.

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