Biggest loser in 'Lenogate': Conan? Nope, 'The Tonight Show.'

NBC is reportedly set to offer Conan O'Brien $32.5 million to give back the reins of 'The Tonight Show' to Jay Leno. The debacle will hurt the show more than O'Brien, media analysts say.

Paul Drinkwater/NBC/AP/File
In this June 1, 2009 file photo provided by NBC, Conan O'Brien makes his debut as the host of NBC's 'The Tonight Show' in Universal City, Calif.

Wearing a red, Conan O’Brien wig and carrying a soggy, cardboard sign (“Don’t Let ‘em Soak ya, Conan!!"), Jim Wilkens ducks out of the rain outside Gate 2 of Universal Studios to plug his TV hero.

“I know he’ll land on his feet, and I can’t wait until he does," says the leader of “Bohos for CoCo,” a group that has been supporting Mr. O’Brien in the month-long late-night NBC scheduling blunder now known as “LenoGate.”

"I just hope he’s not as damaged as 'The Tonight Show' brand,” he adds.

Now that the ink is almost dry on NBC’s deal for O’Brien to leave "The Tonight Show" – in which O'Brien reportedly receives $32.5 million – many analysts agree with the seat-of-the-pants assessment of this rain-soaked fan. The biggest loser, they say, may be the mother ship, itself: "The Tonight Show.”

“This is a brand that spent more than half a century building its stature and reputation,” says Mike Jude, an analyst with Stratecast, a media consulting firm.

And yet, he says, in a very short period of time, NBC has managed to tarnish that brand. First, it handed off the show to O'Brien and put a new show hosted by former "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno at 10 p.m. Now, with both shows underperforming, NBC is seeking to undo its late-night experiment.

A fiasco worthy of 'New Coke'

It's a miscalculation Mr. Jude compares to the “old Coke, new Coke” fiasco, in which Coca-Cola rebranded its traditional drink "Coca-Cola Classic" and introduced a new drink called "Coke."

“There was a lot of trust forsaken in those [Coca-Cola] maneuverings,” Jude says. “The same thing will happen here.”

There are potential winners, the first of which is the competition. When Mr. Leno left "The Tonight Show” last year, he was consistently No. 1 in the 11:35 p.m. time period – a feat that may be out of his grasp now, at least for awhile.

“Putting Jay back at 11:35 [may] be the best of some bad alternatives, [but] my guess is that Leno will not immediately return to his former audience levels,” says David Scardino, entertainment specialist for RPA, an advertising and marketing agency.

Is NBC misdiagnosing the problem?

Other analysts say the whole late night fiasco is evidence of changes larger than two particular shows or hosts.

“This is another case of too little, too late – the equivalent of rearranging the deck chair on the sinking ship called Network TV,” says Susan Mackey-Kallis, a media and culture specialist at Villanova University. She says network television, like print journalism, has been working desperately to reinvent itself in the face of new media – in this case, TiVO, DVR, YouTube, and other Web-based content providers.

"The whole business model of network television has been made obsolete by new media technology, and although it’s not quite clear what business model will replace it, viewing Conan O’Brien’s low audience numbers as the source of the problem, rather than as a symptom of the larger crisis, is just another example of the classic short-sightedness that got NBC into this trouble in the first place,” says Ms. Mackey-Kallis.

Makes for good comedy

The biggest winner out of this imbroglio is comedy itself, says stand-up comedian, K.P. Anderson, executive producer of “The Soup” on “E!”

“There hasn’t been this much attention from the general public since Johnny Carson handed off to Leno 17 years ago,” he says. “Now, all the late-night comics are being quoted everywhere. This is a huge boost.”

Between the two hosts, O'Brien and Leno, O'Brien is seen as experimenting and moving the world of comedy forward, which is why he still has a passionate following that will show up to watch him no matter where he goes, Mr. Anderson says.

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