Rich People’s Problems: Did Conan Make the Wrong Choice?

“There are real people out there with real problems.”

This sentence was spoken last night by Conan O’Brien on his second-to-last Tonight Show. He was referring to the problems in Haiti, but depending on what happens next for him, he might have also inadvertently been referring to members of his staff.

As we’ve all read by now, O’Brien and his reps haggled for days to get every dime they could from NBC for his staff’s severance packages, and Conan himself will donate a large sum – a seven figure amount, according to his management – toward those packages out of his own settlement, which is reported to be around $32 million.

There’s no word on how exactly the severance will break down – given the amount of money involved, maybe each staffer gets six months pay? One year’s worth? More? – but however long it lasts, given both the current weakness of the economy and the generally tough nature of finding jobs in television, there’s no guarantee that every member of his staff will find employment before their severance runs out.

The next month or so will be instructive, of course, as Conan and his reps negotiate with Fox to see if he can become the next – and, if it happens, almost certainly most successful – entertainer to spearhead their late night efforts. But from what we’re reading, affiliate relations, the same thing that ultimately killed “The Jay Leno Show” (and yes, I know, the show also sucked, but I’m just talking about the business end of this right now) makes a late night deal at Fox far from a sure thing.

So let’s imagine for a moment that Fox doesn’t happen for Conan, and his 200+ staffers pound the pavement, seeking to hook up with new shows or other opportunities. With the full force of Hollywood’s sympathy carrying them aloft, there’s no doubt that many of them will find new gigs before the severance runs out.

But will all of them? Chances are, the answer is no, for the simple reason that great jobs in Hollywood are hard to come by. And for those that do get new gigs, how many will get jobs that pay them significantly less than The Tonight Show did?

I certainly hope for the best for all of them – I’ve known several members of his writing staff for years – and for this reason and more, as the world hails the conquering, martyred hero of late night, there’s one nagging question I can’t get out of my head.

If some of his current staffers are still unemployed three, six, twelve months down the line – or, months after whenever the generous severance packages run out, whenever that may be – will at least one of them have the following recurring thought bouncing around his or her head?

“Would 12:05 really have been so bad?”

Yes, NBC insulted the hell out of Conan by pulling the move they did. They behaved without sense or tact, and piled bad decision upon bad decision until they made their network look like Enron and Lehman Brothers rolled into one.

But freely admitting that NBC gave Conan a crappy, insulting choice calls to mind the fact that so many Americans in 2010 are faced with bad choices that have far greater consequences – like, for instance, whether or not to use what little money they have on health insurance.

If it seems an out-of-context comparison, it’s not. Because while, as Conan indicated in his much-lauded statement of defiance, he agonized about the legacy of The Tonight Show in making his decision to leave NBC – a legacy that, according to all the Conan die-hards, has been pretty much dead for almost 20 years anyway – it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that in the end, Conan placed that already-tarnished legacy above the well-being of his staffers.

If the fate of his staffers had been his primary concern, as the narrative of the past few days and statements from his management would have us believe, then the choice would have been simple: take the 12:05 slot, and save every job.

Was 12:05 a crappy option? Absolutely.

But guess what? Life is hard, and filled with crappy options for each and every one of us even in good times – and these are not good times. National unemployment is hovering around ten percent, health care is becoming even more prohibitively expensive every year, and people nationwide are changing careers, taking lower paying jobs, and making the sorts of tough decisions that result in far bigger problems than the loss of a talk show.

The deeper we all delved into this story, the more absurd and lacking perspective it seemed, especially when some began hailing Conan as a hero for recessionary times for the way he stood up to corporate interests. For Team Conan, Coco is a little man taking a big stand.

But not only is this misguided, it’s backwards.

Because while people all over the country were making real choices with real consequences, Conan’s choice was this: move a television show – a show he got paid the kingly amount of somewhere between $10 and $15 million a year to host – to a starting time one half-hour later; or put 200 people out of work while personally walking away with tens of millions of dollars.

He chose the latter.

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2 thoughts on “Rich People’s Problems: Did Conan Make the Wrong Choice?

  1. Legacy issues my a$$, this was Conan O’Bravado pride run amok.

    Glad to find someone sorting this with a better sense of propriety and on broader issues of priorities.

    The trainwreck was set in ’04 with NBC making difficult promises on the fuzzy prognostications of Conan walking in ’09. (was that Zucker? otherwise, give that guy a break, he’s only working with rating numbers to fix an poorly played gambit of Leno @10.)

  2. Oh, come on, Larry. For every Conan employee who doesn’t get a job, another person,perhaps out of work now, will be employed. There will not be, ultimately, a net loss in the talk show economy. And even if there is, there would’ve been if Leno had gone away — as he should have done last year — anyway. Conan has gone above beyond the call of duty in looking after his people for the foreseeable future and, beyond that, they can and should look after themselves. They are not — and should not be — his primary concern. His own prospects and future should be. And are. Besides, the better he does, the better it will be for the production people of the world.

    You’re right that 12:05 would not have been so terrible. It would still have been The Tonight Show, despite the semantic rhetoric of those involved. And Leno would have been the one with the weird situation if he had been given the half-hour show.

    If it had worked, it would have given Conan a strong lead-in and a bigger potential audience. And Leno would eventually have left or Conan could have on his own terms. If it hadn’t worked, Leno probably would have gone bye-bye and Conan may have been spared in that event. Maybe not.

    In any event, there ARE people with real problems in the world. Conan’s well-severanced staff are not among them.

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