Conan Pays the Price for NBC Chief's Lack of Vision

NBC Universal Chairman Jeff Zucker would like nothing more than to be regarded as a brilliant long-term strategic thinker. Unfortunately for his ambition, reality has consistently suggested otherwise. He failed to program a replacement for Friends, even though it was the key to NBC's prime-time dominance. He failed to anticipate that Jay Leno wouldn't want to take early retirement. And then he failed to foresee how thoroughly uninterested audiences would be in a prime-time version of Leno's shtick.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% So now Zucker is trying something different: short-term thinking. As you've probably heard by now, NBC is moving Leno back to his old 11:35 p.m. (ET) timeslot, which means Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show won't start until after midnight -- provided O'Brien doesn't bail on the network altogether in favor of friendlier environs.

Try to follow this thinking: Five years ago, O'Brien was so vital to NBC's future that Zucker was willing to hustle Leno out the door to ensure O'Brien's continued services. Now, O'Brien's apparently so disposable that NBC is prepared to sacrifice him for a chance to squeeze a few more years out of a talent whose best days are clearly behind him.

Is Fox Beckoning?

And sacrifice him it has. O'Brien may not defect right away, as Fox, which is interested in having its own late-night show, would reportedly like him to. But by resorting to contractual fine print to screw him out of the job he was promised, after a mere six months, it has alienated O'Brien thoroughly and permanently -- as an open letter he released Tuesday shows. In the letter, O'Brien scorches NBC for not giving him a chance to succeed. While he would like to continue hosting The Tonight Show, he writes, "I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction." O'Brien says he hopes the network will release him from his contract "so that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of, for a company that values our work."

How did NBC arrive at the point where it's willing to risk losing one of its biggest stars? For starters, his ratings haven't been so hot since he took over Tonight. But that's only part of the story. More important is the recent takeover of NBC Universal by Comcast (CMCSA).

For some reason, Comcast has elected to keep Zucker on post-merger, but that arrangement is best regarded as probationary. For Zucker to enjoy any kind of job security, he'll need to show in a hurry he can make headway on NBC's problems, and moving Leno back to 11:35 is probably the fastest and safest way to do that. It's not the best for the network's long-term health, however, and Zucker himself knows that -- or used to.
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