The possibility that Conan O’Brien may move from NBC to take over the after hours spot on Fox TV has caused a lot of hand wringing and head scratching in the conservative community. Rumors are flying across the internet, from gossip blogger TMZ to the New York Times, that Jay Leno is deep in talks with NBC and its new owner Comcast to reclaim his “Tonight Show” hosting gig. This comes after Conan O’Brien proved an unmitigated disaster as a late night talk show host, being given a hugely successful show that Mr. Leno built up over many years and driving its ratings to unprecedented and fiscally disastrous low levels.
The Tonight Show, based in Hollywood, is a favorite for big time stars who visit the set and play music to promote their upcoming movies, books and concerts. When O’Brien took the reins last year, it was the highest rated late night program in history. But instead of keeping the spirit of Mr. Leno’s genial humor alive, Conan pushed the limits with his New York City-style gritty sarcasm. He introduced gags that were appealing to teens and college students, but that were a turn off to older adults, studies show. He also did not appease the Hollywood power elite by avoiding popular celebrities and mocking their biggest movie releases. His music selections have been offbeat, more in the vein of grunge and rap than the popular country and soul musicians that Mr. Leno regularly had visit him. In general, Mr O’Brien is seen as something of an upstart who bit off more than he could chew.
Affiliate stations, upset over their low ratings, questionable content and shrinking profits, have been clamoring for Mr. Leno’s return. The other shoe dropped this week when insiders at NBC leaked news of Mr. Leno’s return to gauge the public’s reaction. It has been almost overwhelming popular in many circles, while fans of Conan have been attempting a last ditch effort to keep his show alive.
Meanwhile, Mr. O’Brien is being courted by Fox Television and its head Rupert Murdoch. The possibility of taking on a wholly new and exciting late night program on a highly successful network could prove too tempting for the exuberatingly-compensated Conan O’Brien. It would also give him a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of industry executives who cite his ratings failure as indicative of the maturing sensibilities of tv audiences who found his brand of humor offensive and disturbing.
The marriage of Mr. Murdoch and Mr. O’Brien does pose some broader questions, however, for investors in parent company News Corp and for loyal watchers of Fox TV. Would this be seen as an unholy alliance between a respected media icon and an unabashedly liberal comedian whose rants border on the radically questionable? Would O’Brien turn Fox more left-wing or would Fox turn Conan more age-appropriate? Is it ethically responsible for what is ostensibly a news organization (New Corp) to financially and emotionally support the political agenda of someone like Conan O’Brien?
For a clue about Mr. Murdoch’s motivations, one only needs to look at the past. Fox Televsion made a name for itself in the early 1990s with shows like The Simpsons, which had and continues to have a notable reputation for its undercurrent of Democrat party sympathies. This was followed by the lucrative show Family Guy, which has profited handsomely by mocking Christianity, Republican values, Traditional Marriage, among many others. This may appear somewhat shocking considering Mr. Murdoch’s background as an Australian billionaire wholeheartedly devoted to pro-American and pro-Christian causes. But it was precisely the profits from these left-leaning cartoon shows that funded the launch of Fox News, now one of the most watched resources on television today. It gave Mr. Murdoch the monies he needed to purchase a string of newspapers, including the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal. With the Simpsons and Family Guy funds, the ideological spread of the Murdoch way into these new areas would never have been possible.
Ultimately, if the past is any indication, a successful joint venture between Conan O’Brien and Fox Television may for the short term promote immature late night comedy, but long term it could provide the money for Mr. Murdoch’s successful brand of conservatism to expand into grand new territories.