The dust has settled on the Second Great Late-Night War, with Jay Leno once again emerging victorious, having rope-a-doped Conan O’Brien for seven months before snatching back what he seemed to consider rightfully his. We all know the story and are now left to consider the aftermath.
Jay’s future is clear (Headlines! Jaywalking!), David Letterman remains a glorious curmudgeon and the Kimmel-Ferguson-Fallon triumvirate will keep fighting for Jay and Dave’s scraps. That leaves us with the dethroned O’Brien, whose ousting from NBC mustered a parade of good will and gaudy ratings for his final handful of “Tonight Shows.” So what will O’Brien do now?
As per NBC’s termination agreement, O’Brien must remain in hibernation until Sept. 1, at which point he can return to television in any capacity he desires. The assumed destination is Fox, though various cable outlets have also expressed interest (TBS, HBO, Showtime and Comedy Central among them). However, anytime O’Brien’s next potential home comes up, the discussion inevitably returns to Fox, and for good reason.
Fox has long hungered for a late-night star of its own. Though all attempts at launching such a franchise have failed (remember Joan Rivers and Chevy Chase?), Conan has a lot more going for him than others who have attempted the same feat at the network. While no official talks have taken place, Fox appears eager to land him, even if there are a number of stumbling blocks to consider.
With all this in mind, I must make a plea: Don’t do it, Conan. Avoid Fox’s lusty gaze.
A big risk
It’s not that Conan wouldn’t creatively thrive at Fox. I suspect he would. The problem with moving to Fox and taking Leno and Letterman head on is one of risk.
What are the chances Conan will succeed on Fox? It depends on what you mean by success. Even if Fox manages to correctly temper its ratings expectations and everything with the Fox affiliates ends up working out, there’s still a chance that network boss Rupert Murdoch kills Conan’s show within a few years. (Fox has a notoriously itchy trigger finger with its programming and, as we witnessed with the recent NBC debacle, even the best laid plans are susceptible to implosion.)
You can blame Conan’s poor “Tonight Show” ratings on “The Jay Leno Show” and its trickle-down effect on the local news lead-ins all you want. It may have been the sole reason for Conan’s underwhelming viewership, but we can’t know for sure.
If we disregard his last two weeks at “The Tonight Show” desk, his ratings weren’t good. It’s entirely possible that he doesn’t have the appeal to succeed at 11 or 11:30 p.m. Conan isn’t for everyone. We know this. Even in his neutered state on “The Tonight Show,” where he clearly attempted to expand his appeal and toned down a number of his more absurd “Late Night” trademarks, Conan’s humor didn’t stick with the masses.
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