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The recent dustup over NBC’s The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien has been nothing short of entertaining. Show business aside, this little episode of popular culture offers a unique opportunity to witness challenger brand positioning and public perception unfold on a grand scale.
What I’ve found particularly interesting is the inordinate amount of public outrage at NBC (and Jay Leno) and the beloved, nearly deified status that Conan has attained with even the most fair-weather fans. I think it boils down to a couple of things: the public has an innate sense of fairness, they gravitate almost uniformly to the underdog or challenger, and they love it when the underdog exhibits real backbone.
How did a Harvard-educated, multi-millionaire late night talk show host magically transmogrify into a guy who got laid off at the local car plant? The overreaction to Conan’s departure has been kind of astounding; as a nation, are we really that concerned about who hosts “The Tonight Show,” a television program that stopped being culturally relevant around 1986?
When you consider the Conan brand in the late night television competitive environment, maybe he is a challenger brand. Rob Sheffield, in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, describes Jay Leno as the Godzilla of late night TV:
Leno’s got the stomach for fights. Like Paul McCartney, another nice guy wrongly dismissed as a cream puff, Jay made his bones in the sleaziest, nastiest showbiz shark pools on earth. He plays nice for the old ladies, but his street-fighting instincts are off the charts. He’s left plenty of carrion on the late-night highway. Arsenio Hall, Chevy Chase, Magic Johnson — Jay knocked them all off the air, and you can bet he still savors the memory of their death cries.
Whether Conan’s ratings would’ve been better had NBC not led in to his show with a watered-down and (in my opinion) not terribly funny hour of Jay Leno will never be answered. NBC’s decision to revert back to Leno is seemingly the late night equivalent of Coca-Cola’s decision to yank New Coke off the shelves. The experiment didn’t work. However, that logic doesn’t hold up because, unlike New Coke, Conan has cemented his iconic status with existing fans and endeared himself to millions more.
The public realized he was getting a raw deal. They saw Conan as a put-upon underdog, and they cheered when he pushed back with weeks of (in my opinion) hilarious barbs at his bosses at the network. The fact that Conan’s exit speech was heartfelt and genuine sealed his canonization:
To all the people watching, I can never thank you enough for your kindness to me, and I’ll think about it for the rest of my life. All I ask of you is one thing: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality, and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.
It’s simple. People love an underdog with tremendous heart and nothing to lose. And that’s Conan O’Brien. The patron saint of failed late night programming.