As we people of Earth mull the otherworldly mess in which Conan O'Brien has been plunged, we can't escape questions — lots of questions — sparked by NBC, which, for the moment, is O'Brien's employer as well as a place that seems exempt from the sort of logic usually accepted on our planet.
For example: Why, after NBC moved heaven and Earth (or at least Jay Leno) to keep Conan on its payroll, isn't it willing to give him more than seven months to prove himself as the new host of "Tonight"?
(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)
And: Why, even if NBC was unhappy with Leno's prime-time show, couldn't it have waited (and soothed its restless affiliates) long enough to give its 4-month-old "Jay Leno Show" any needed renovations?
NBC originally intended to stick with the show for "at least a year," Rick Ludwin, the network's late-night boss, said last summer.
Here on Planet Earth, a year has 12 months, not just four.
‘Tonight’ to become ‘Morning’ show?But NBC is a strange realm, even by the standards of the television business. It's a place that seems content to make its own rules, discover their fallacy, then go on repeating them. It's a place that seriously proposes "The Tonight Show" start at 12:05 a.m. (that is, first thing in the morning), a place that cultivates contempt from two of its most important stars — Leno and O'Brien — while professing a desire to keep them in the fold.
The strangeness reached a fever pitch on Tuesday, when O'Brien issued a statement declining NBC's proposal to go on the air at 12:05. He wryly addressed his statement to "People of Earth." People of Earth thought he made perfect sense.
Sure, every TV network, like any business, takes its share of pratfalls. But during the past decade, NBC has crystallized its image as the Peacock Network — a peacock with scant evidence of vision, taste or showmanship, or the ability to fly.
This period has coincided with the spectacular ascent of Jeff Zucker, currently the CEO of NBC Universal.
Now 44, he has long outgrown his status as a whiz kid. But he earned it at age 26 by becoming executive producer of "Today." Then, as if that weren't enough to clinch the Boy Wonder title, at 27 he briefly served as executive producer of "Today" and "NBC Nightly News" — simultaneously.
In 2000, he left "Today" undisputedly the morning champ to take over NBC's entertainment division. Then he was crowned president of the NBC Universal Television Group, in charge of its entertainment, news and cable channels. Three years ago, he moved up again, when NBC Universal veteran Robert Wright retired.
The Zucker legacy includes "Fear Factor," "The Apprentice," "super-sized" sitcom episodes and "Law & Order" spinoffs all over the place.
His philosophy, as expressed in a TV Week interview in 2008: "We're managing for margin, not for ratings. The size of the ratings of a show we cannot afford is not going to do us any good anymore."
Cynical, hard-nosed or just realistic? In any case, his era seems far removed from "Must-See TV" glory days.
Talk is cheap ... cheaper than scripted drama, that isThree years ago, Zucker unveiled a "wide-ranging strategic initiative" called NBCU 2.0, among whose many provisions was to move away from airing costly scripted comedies or dramas at 8 p.m. to show cut-rate reality fare.
Though never strictly adhered to, this business plan anticipated "The Jay Leno Show," which aimed to swathe five weeknight prime-time hours with a cheap-to-make comedy-talk show. It also served as a crash pad for Leno, whose departure from "Tonight" was brokered by Zucker in 2004 as part of an orderly transition to keep both Leno and O'Brien at NBC.
A weeknight talk show at 10 p.m.! When announced in December 2008, this revolution promised to alter the landscape of TV prime time as viewers had known it since the days of "I Love Lucy."
"The planets aligned perfectly," then NBC entertainment co-chairman Marc Graboff told reporters. "We would not have done this with anybody but Jay Leno."
But it raised questions, such as: Would enough viewers choose a transplanted Leno over traditional scripted prime-time fare? Was this only the first step in prime-time drama being pushed aside for cheaper-to-produce nightly talk?
Zucker era has alienated creative communityNo wonder Hollywood has never been comfortable with Zucker. Under his reign, NBC in recent years has cut back on series development and pilots for new series, reasoning it was a costly and often wasteful way of building a prime-time lineup.
In 2007, he hired Ben Silverman as entertainment co-chairman. Zucker had hoped that Silverman could bring the magic touch he had with his Reveille production studio to turn around the fourth-place network. Last summer, Silverman left the network after two years more focused on striking deals with advertisers than boosting NBC's creative profile or competitive position.
When asked if Silverman should be considered a failure at NBC, Zucker insisted, "not at all."
Silverman was responsible for "a lot of successes that are not measured in ratings," Zucker said in an interview last July.
On Wednesday, he declined to comment on the NBC's late-night dilemma.
The Zucker era has alienated Hollywood's creative community and made producers, actors and writers worry that NBC was taking away jobs. (Almost as if an olive branch, NBC this winter has ordered a full slate of pilots from many of Hollywood's biggest names, including Jerry Bruckheimer, J.J. Abrams and David E. Kelley.)
CBS, the top-rated network in prime time, has fought back against NBC's contention that the network television model is broken beyond repair.
"We have to realize that ABC, CBS and Fox have all fared very well during this experimental phase for NBC," said Nina Tassler, CBS entertainment chief, on Saturday. "Ultimately, there is no substitute for developing great shows, working with great talent and getting your programs on the air."
But even while NBC's prime-time lineup was falling apart, NBC remained the leader in late night, an area the network has dominated since pioneering "Tonight" a half-century ago.
In 2004, Zucker meant to keep it that way with the Leno-O'Brien succession plan. But when he pushed the button on the countdown clock, his announcement instantly made Leno the odd man out — a designated lame duck, five years in advance, as Leno's reward for a job well done (in the hosting job he wanted to keep).
Last spring, Leno surrendered "Tonight" to O'Brien, who moved up an hour from the outpost of "Late Night."
Now this. NBC's tortured effort to get around the fact that two men essentially want one job has blown up spectacularly in the network's face. Its executives are punchlines for comics, including NBC's own.
In his monologue Monday, O'Brien listed several options he's considering, including "leave television altogether and work in a classier business with better people, like hardcore porn."
Meanwhile, Leno continued to remind the world that he has always been the good soldier, yet still got hosed.
NBC told him his current show "performed exactly as they expected it would, and then they canceled it," he said in Monday's monologue. "Don't confuse that with when we were on in late night and we performed BETTER than expected, and they canceled us — THAT was totally different!"
As the Great Late-Night Fiasco of 2010 accelerates, a long-asked question is taking on new life: How has Zucker continued to survive and move up?
For the answer, we need only look beyond the craziness displayed by NBC.
Under Zucker's stewardship, NBC Universal has built a stable of cable networks that are doing very well, including the top-rated USA network, and the growing Bravo, Oxygen and Syfy. The Weather Channel and CNBC are the defining brands for weather and financial coverage, and even MSNBC has made inroads after years of floundering.
These are what made Comcast interested in acquiring a majority stake in NBC Universal, a deal announced in December and currently under government review.
The cable networks have the advantage of dual revenue streams — advertising and fees from cable systems to carry them — that broadcast networks can't really match.
Still, it's embarrassing when a major NBC rival can only offer pity about the network's troubles.
"We want them to be vibrant and we want them to be a good competitor," said Stephen McPherson, ABC's entertainment president, on Tuesday. "It's kind of like playing for the Yankees, and the Boston Red Sox decide to stop playing baseball."
Meanwhile, NBC Universal has renewed Zucker's contract for three more years.