Conan O'Brien is Not the Bad Guy

Even though I have already written about NBC's late night talk show "crisis," I have been flabbergasted (always wanted to use that word) by the actions of NBC executives, not just in their mishandling of this whole fiasco, but also in their efforts to portray Conan O'Brien as the villain in this craziness.

Network execs, especially Jeff Zucker, chief executive of NBC Universal, have seemingly gone out of their way to villify O'Brien, while handling Jay Leno with kid-gloves, and avoiding any blame for their own programming miscues (besides the generic "we're in charge so we accept responsibility" statements). Simply put, the collapse of NBC as a powerhouse stems from the complete incompetance of the network's upper-management. I'm utterly shocked that the only ones apparently at risk of losing their jobs seem to be Conan O'Brien and the current, short-lived Tonight Show staff.

Some might call the Jay Leno Prime Time Experiment a bold move to try new things in a changing media environment, but in all honesty it was a ludicrous gambit to pinch pennies and placate egos. They were afraid to lose Conan O'Brien, and now it looks like they are losing him anyway. They were afraid to lose Jay Leno, so they destroyed their prime time line-up, angered their affiliates, and now have thrown their esteemed late night talk show franchises into disarray.

There was no public anger displayed at Jay Leno for not going quietly into the sunset, even though the Tonight Show's ratings free-fall began at least a full year before Conan O'Brien ever took over as the new host. There was no public criticism of Leno for bringing down viewership and serving as a horrible lead-in for affiliate evening newscasts and The Tonight Show. But when Conan O'Brien rightfully refused to agree to a time-shift, arguing that it would damage the program he inherited and tarnish the brand that Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, and Mr. Leno made famous, suddenly all blame seemed to shift. They called O'Brien "chicken-hearted" and "gutless."

Now that public (and professional) sentiment seems to be leaning toward "Team Conan," the blame game is shifting to TV viewers. Zucker, in an interview with the New York Times, absurdly tried to spin NBC's PR nightmare as being the result of the public's appetite for scandal. He said, "We live in a society today that loves a soap opera. Three months ago it was David Letterman. Six weeks ago it was Tiger Woods's problems. Today it's NBC's problems."

They're blaming the PR nightmare on Conan, they're blaming the American public, they're blaming everyone except the executives themselves who sabotaged their programming, botched the handling of their big talk show stars, and allowed the whole fiasco to mushroom into an out of control catastrophe.

When Comcast finally takes control of NBC, I hope they fully investigate how this nonsense came to be. The first national television network has been turned into a laughing stock. With the Winter Olympics coming up, it should be a time for NBC to bask in high ratings, high advertising profits, and high profile corporate glory. Instead, primetime is a shambles, late night is a question mark, and the network's finances are a mess.

As much as the NBC executives might want everyone to think the blame lies with Conan O'Brien, it is not his fault. When Conan goes, they will still have to get their house in order, and Mr. O'Brien won't be around as a scapegoat anymore.