Commentary: The joke is on Leno
SAN DIEGO -- Never mind pictures. Sometimes, a joke is worth a thousand words.
Take this recent zinger from Conan O'Brien: "I just want to say to the kids out there watching: You can do anything you want in life. Unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too."
Ouch. That's going to leave a mark. At least I hope so. NBC deserves a few scars for treating O'Brien so shabbily. The edgy late-night host has quickly gone from golden boy to scapegoat. It now appears that O'Brien will leave the network -- with the help of a multimillion-dollar separation agreement -- rather than take the short end of the stick.
O'Brien won't go along with a plan by NBC executives to move Leno, the former "Tonight Show" host, back to 11:35 p.m. and push back his show to the midnight hour. So O'Brien's stint as host of "The Tonight Show" seems to be coming to an end just seven months after it began. At the very least, O'Brien should have been given more time to find an audience, rather than being pushed aside to make room for Leno.
You can't miss the irony. NBC is in this pickle because five years ago, executives were afraid they were going to lose O'Brien and so they promised him the chance to host "Tonight" down the road. When the moment came, Leno's ratings were still No. 1, and yet he was unceremoniously ushered out of his coveted time slot and into a special 10 o'clock show that never caught on. The network affiliates became nervous. Meanwhile, "The Tonight Show" with Conan O'Brien wasn't doing any better. So the network brass tried to put the pieces back together. Now O'Brien is probably going to end up walking after all -- the same outcome NBC executives were trying to avoid at the start of this debacle.
Meanwhile, some of those executives took a stab at trying to trash O'Brien's reputation, by labeling him stubborn, difficult and a failure. Remember, this is the same person NBC went to extraordinary lengths to try to keep from bolting to a competitor.
Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports and someone who was frequently consulted with regarding the changes in NBC's late-night schedule, was so upset over the jokes that O'Brien was cracking at Leno's expense that he told The New York Times it was "chicken-hearted and gutless to blame a guy you couldn't beat in the ratings." The NBC veteran further explained that what this is really about is "an astounding failure by Conan." In short, said Ebersol, "we bet on the wrong guy."
Now they've got the wrong approach. Talk like this is only going to make O'Brien even more eager to come back with another show on another network and eat the NBC Peacock's lunch. Besides, the smear campaign doesn't make sense. If O'Brien is so bad, why upend the entire late-night schedule just to keep him? And if he's so bad, what's behind a report by entertainment writer Nikki Finke that NBC is trying to keep him off the air for as much as three and a half years? Why do that unless you're afraid you might have to compete with him down the line?
"You can do anything you want in life. Unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too."
Truer words have rarely found their way into a late-night monologue. And they help explain, in a one-liner, what is at the core of NBC's increasingly messy late-night soap opera. Despite a series of clumsy attempts by network executives to protect the Jay Leno brand from damage by insisting that he is not to blame, it's clear that Leno deserves a lot of the blame for how this turned out. Whether or not Leno pushed for the move to 10 o'clock, he went along with it when he had other options. He could have left NBC, gone into syndication, or showed up on the doorstep of another network such as ABC or FOX.
Leno gambled by going to an earlier time slot. It didn't work out. He should leave the table.
This is becoming an increasingly familiar story in America. We think we're entitled to something, and we quickly forget what we agreed to just months earlier. What happened to fairness and integrity? Like network television in the age of cable, the Internet, video games, and other demands on our time, these things are fast becoming relics of an earlier time.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is email@example.com.