Editorial: NBC didn’t give O’Brien a shot

Published 7:38 am Thursday, January 14, 2010

OK, let’s get this straight.

NBC only gave Conan O’Brien seven months to get super ratings and outperform David Letterman on CBS? Really? Seriously?

Imagine if coach Brad Childress had seven months from the time he was hired to win the Super Bowl. Imagine if you had seven months from your hire date to earn your company an extra million.

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Seven months is enough time to get good at new computer software, not win national TV market share.

If you haven’t heard, the Peacock Network wanted to move O’Brien — who has hosted “The Tonight Show” ever since Jay Leno made a stab at prime time — to later in the nightly lineup. NBC executives apparently wanted to start “The Tonight Show” at 11:05 p.m. Central so that they could air a new half-hour show hosted by Leno at 10:35, the normal time slot for O’Brien and “The Tonight Show.”

But O’Brien called NBC’s bluff and quit, issuing a statement to “the people of Earth.”

“I sincerely believe that delaying ‘The Tonight Show’ into the next day (Eastern Time) to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.”

O’Brien is right.

In 1992, NBC gave Jay Leno plenty of time to duke it out with Letterman, and that was when NBC had quality prime-time shows (“Cheers” and “Seinfeld” for instance). These days, NBC’s prime-time lineup — when football isn’t on — is in the toilet, which not only hurts late local news on NBC affiliates but also “The Tonight Show.” And with Leno at 9 p.m., who wants to watch two talk shows a night?

That said, O’Brien has talent that resonates with viewers. He will be fine. We worry more about the future of “The Tonight Show,” a tradition that seems to be nearing a tragic end.

Here’s advice to NBC: Start prime-time viewing in the Eastern Time Zone at 7 p.m., like all networks do in the Central. Maybe those viewers won’t fall asleep before the end of the NBC prime-time schedule.