CoCo’s cable caper

Dave Berg Contributor
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Conan is getting a new late-night gig with TBS, an excellent cable network to be sure, but not network television. He had been in talks with Fox, and media observers are surprised and disappointed he didn’t work out a deal. Well, I’m not surprised.

There’s a reason people didn’t watch “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien,” and it wasn’t just the ratings. It’s Conan.

Okay, I admit, I’m not exactly a member of Team Coco. I worked as a producer with Jay Leno for 18 years, so yes, I have a skewed point of view, but perhaps some insights, as well.

I thought it was funny but telling when Conan hailed his new show with these words: “In three months I’ve gone from network television to Twitter to performing in live theaters, and now I’m headed to basic cable. My plan is working perfectly.”

Self-effacing humor is always best, but in an odd way Conan sounded a little aloof. When you act like it’s all a game that you’re not really part of, you come off disingenuous.

I’ve dealt with hundreds of guests over the years, and I learned from audience reactions and ratings that when you act like you’re too cool for the room, people can sense it, and they don’t like it unless they’re teenage boys or very immature.

It wasn’t just a game for Conan six years ago when NBC told Jay Leno, the long-time late-night king, he would be fired and replaced by Conan. Jay tried to put a good spin on the news, but he knew he was being replaced for very arbitrary reasons.

I’ve never heard Conan say that he was sorry that he could be putting Jay and his staff out of work. Yet he stood by and said nothing when media critics and bloggers piled up on Jay, accusing him of big-footing Conan out of his hosting job at The Tonight Show after seven months. Truth is a rare commodity in Hollywood, and Conan allowed so-called journalists to twist it. In fact, he encouraged it.

Jay didn’t cause Conan to start Twittering and performing in live theaters after his Tonight Show stint. He did. His ratings went into a freefall last summer, dropping 50 percent. This was before The Jay Leno Show ever went on the air. But he didn’t raise a finger to stop the falsehoods that Jay Leno’s poor lead-ins led to his ratings debacle.

I’ve always suspected that Conan thought he was entitled to The Tonight Show, but it wasn’t his birthright. Jay didn’t take the show away from Conan, as journalists continue to say. Conan took the show away from himself. NBC offered Jay The Tonight Show because he could bring in the viewers and Conan couldn’t.

Conan’s a smart guy. He went to Harvard. But he never did stand-up at comedy clubs and strip joints where people heckled him and owners didn’t pay him, as Jay did for 20 years. It may be cliché, but sometimes you have to pay your dues.

Jay often says high-self esteem is not all it’s cracked up to be. Hit men can be pretty self-confident. Jay says he has low self-esteem, which has caused him to work harder and accept responsibility for his actions. There’s a reason Jay admitted to Oprah that The Jay Leno Show was a failure.

Since Jay has returned to The Tonight Show on March 1, the ratings are once again No. 1. Conan had dropped to second place. TV Guide called this feat “nothing short of miraculous.”

Conan’s new show will be seen at 11 p.m., a slot now occupied by George Lopez’s show, which will be bumped to midnight, truly an ironic twist, considering that just last February NBC offered Conan The Tonight Show at midnight following Jay Leno at 11:30 p.m., and Conan turned it down.

Now that Conan is doing cable, media observers are saying Fox didn’t pick him up because their affiliates balked. Come on, if Conan could deliver the audience, he’d be on Fox. Come to think of it, he’d still be hosting The Tonight Show.

Dave Berg is a writer-producer. Until recently he was a co-producer for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Dave worked with Jay since he became the host of the show in May 1992. He has served as a writer-producer for NBC News, a reporter and executive producer for various news organizations and has written for such publications as Reader’s Digest, National Review, The Washington Times and Crisis magazine.