Has NBC Made Matters Even Worse for Leno?

By the time you read this, Conan O'Brien may be a free man. After taking a hard line with The Tonight Show host, and even reportedly threatening to bench him for the duration of his contract if he didn't accept a 12:05 a.m. time slot, NBC is suddenly said to be on the verge of a deal that would cut O'Brien loose and send him on his way with a substantial wad of cash.What changed things? Perhaps the network, having irreversibly alienated O'Brien and his loyal fans with its ham-fisted handling of the situation, has realized how close it has come to ruining its remaining late-night asset, Jay Leno. A backlash against NBC Universal Chairman Jeff Zucker and his brain trust was entirely foreseeable; more surprising has been the personal vitriol directed at Leno.

His less-than-triumphant return to late night following a disastrous stint in prime time has unleashed a surge of suppressed resentment, at least among his fellow talk-show hosts. Night after night this week, David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel have mercilessly mocked Leno in their monologues. Kimmel even donned a Jay Leno costume for his send-up and harassed Leno on his own show. Comedy's elite, it's clear, are firmly on Team Coco -- and ask any disgraced politician how much late-night humor can do to crystallize public perception.

Failing to Accentuate the Positive

Though no one seems to find him especially hilarious, Leno has always been affable. It's his real strength as a performer.

O'Brien can't claim the same kind of appeal. The "Q Scores" compiled by research firm Marketing Evaluations show the disparity exists between the two. At the time of the last survey, conducted in July and August of 2009, Leno was regarded favorably and unfavorably in almost equal measure: 22% of respondents had a positive opinion of him, while 25% held a negative view. For O'Brien, the negatives (37%) far outweighed the positives (13%). Steven Levitt, the president of Marketing Evaluations, says those numbers have been relatively consistent over time.

This raises a couple of questions: First, knowing that O'Brien's appeal is far narrower than Leno's, what made Zucker so confident that he was the long-term answer for Tonight? Talking to The New York Times, Dick Ebersol, one of Zucker's top lieutenants, attempted to pin blame for the whole fiasco on O'Brien's weak ratings. But what reason did they have to expect otherwise, especially at first?

Second, could the attacks on Leno, if sustained, push his positives down and his negatives up? Levitt says he doesn't expect to see a great deal of movement in the numbers by the time the next survey is conducted, in March, but he adds that it's too soon to tell. "People have to settle in with what they've seen and heard, and then it has to evolve into this overall feeling," he says.

If Zucker is smart -- or if he's willing to learn from his mistakes -- he won't wait to find out. O'Brien will get paid, big-time, and he'll be free to do a show for a network that will appreciate what it has, not one that asks him to be something he isn't.
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