However badly Conan O’Brien got screwed by NBC

The whole 2005 announcement by NBC that Conan would take over the Tonight Show when Jay stepped down in 2009 was … at best .. ill-conceived. It set the stage for the elements which would transpire four years later.

What precipitated that announcement? Conan and his management team had been bugging the NBC executives suggesting that Jay’s time was up and he needed to get out of the way for Conan to take over the Tonight Show.

In fact, you don’t need to trust on that point, an article in the NY Times in 2004 after Leno’s contract was renewed for five years, had both Conan and his manager openly musing about leaving the network for another that would play him at 11:30 pm, the Tonight Show slot. That was not an accident. That would send a message to the network, “You’ve spent 20 years grooming this talent, be a shame if you lost me. “

And a message to Leno, “GTFO.”

So, when offered the Tonight Show contract, both Conan and his manager were so giddy, they overlooked a few really salient points.

  • When taking over a TV show from another host, be well sure and damn solid that they are ready to go. Conan and his manager’s comments to media in 2004 and early 2005 had the effect of forcing the network’s hand and pushing Jay Leno out. That was exceedingly bad form. They should have waited for the network to decide. Failing to execute this step, then you should definitely…
  • When hosting a late night show say “The Tonight Show” which has pretty much aired at 11:30 pm since forever with exceptions around the Olympic broadcasts etc, YOU ALWAYS GET THE TIME OF THE SHOW’S AIRING WRITTEN into YOUR CONTRACT. Conan’s manager and Conan missed this very important data point. This is not something to easily dismiss. Conan could, and probably should, have sued his manager for malpractice over this. If you fail to execute these first two steps, then you should REALLY be sure you do this next one..
  • When setting up a cash pay-or-play penalty, you gotta think, what’s the amount that’s so prohibitive … they’ll HAVE to play me. Conan’s team settled on 40 million. Leno’s team settled on $150 million. Know your worth and don’t accept less.
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Conan’s rush to this process was his undoing. He rushed to get Leno out early, he rushed to get the contract signed and he rushed thru the review of that contract. These items are not Jay Leno’s fault, nor NBC’s fault. They are mistakes made by a long time network television performer and his longtime manager who should have known better.

Had Conan simply waited for the 3–4 years it took for Leno’s ratings to slide, he’d probably be hosting the Tonight Show today. Had either he or his manager taken the time to properly construct his contract for time-of-air and the pay-or-play clause, again — the same outcome, he’d likely be hosting the show today.

I love how everyone casts Leno as an evil villain in this thing. And maybe he is, but he brags all the time about not having a manager, he and his assistant, Helga Pollack, manage 99% of his career business. She came to work for him, not from some showbiz empire, but from a luxury foreign car dealer from which he was a customer. Both Helga and Jay are VERY smart folks. Street smart.

Further, even a cursory reading of several of the books written about Carson and his infamous contract fights with NBC would have educated to the necessity of that time-of-air clause. Those who do not know the history, are indeed doomed to repeat it.

I strongly feel that Conan truly had not read those books and knew very little of the rich history of the program and why certain things could be learned from Carson’s battles with the network.

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