NBC's meltdown has become the stuff of entertainment, but that's no cause for glee

Neal Justin
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — Over the years, Conan O'Brien has been responsible for some memorable "Saturday Night Live" skits, "Simpsons" episodes and late-night monologues. But he saved his most powerful writing for a kiss-off letter to NBC executives that would have made Dorothy Parker cackle.

O'Brien was responding to a proposal last week to return Jay Leno to late night and shove "The Tonight Show" back by half an hour, just the latest in a series of boneheaded network ideas.

"We're very proud of our contribution to the legacy of "The Tonight Show," he wrote Tuesday. "But I can't participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction." The move was applauded in L.A. by anyone who's ever been lied to or pushed around by a suit. In other words, everyone.

"I thought it was great," said "Cougar Town" creator Bill Lawrence after the statement came out and stopped this town like a 32-car pileup on Hwy. 101. "It's playing out exactly like I hoped it would."

Of course, O'Brien's cutting moments are far from the network's only worries. He's like the 16th senator who stabbed Julius Caesar, but in NBC's case, most of its wounds are self-inflicted.

Since the rise of NBC Universal chief executive Jeff Zucker, the network has made some of the worst business decisions since the marketing of New Coke. In the past, these calls have bruised egos and undermined ratings. This time, NBC's very future is at stake.

NBC Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin — playing the hapless Sheriff of Nottingham to Zucker's desperate King John — had no choice but to cancel Jay Leno's prime-time disaster, unless he relished the idea of station managers nationwide, furious over the drop in their local-news ratings with Leno as a lead-in, storming 30 Rock with torches in their hands and blood in their eyes. But instead of releasing one of his two stars, Gaspin made a rash and shortsighted attempt to keep both — the same mistake NBC made last year. Again, he's trying to have his cake and eat it, too. The result: a piercing stomachache that will take years to cure.

The kind of executive who likes to hurl stink bombs and then hide in the closet, Gaspin deserves credit for facing the music last week at a TV Critics Association news conference, but the NBC brass have been so dismissive and pompous in recent years that the room didn't display much sympathy. There was even a perverse pleasure in watching a suit slowly drown in his own flop sweat.

In the end, however, there's nothing to be giddy about.

"Seeing a great network tumble is not something we rejoice over," said ABC Entertainment president Steve McPherson. "It's like you can be the Yankees, but you don't want the Red Sox deciding not to play baseball anymore."

NBC has recovered from previous gaffes: Deborah Norville replacing Jane Pauley. The manipulated General Motors story on "Dateline NBC." "Manimal."

But these latest goofs will linger, perhaps permanently. Already compromised by the steady loss of viewers to cable, NBC has now diminished — and maybe even sacrificed — "The Tonight Show," one of its biggest money-makers, not to mention one of the great institutions in TV history. The show is so damaged that Leno should give serious thought to following O'Brien's cue and also offering to walk. That would keep him from going down with a sinking ship and help restore his self-promoted reputation as a man of loyalty who can't stomach the idea of being in business with a gang of betrayers.

But there remains an unlikely strategy, one that would stop the bleeding and give NBC a real second (15th?) chance. Gaspin must resign.

Doing so would come across as a sincere apology and a genuine signal of a desire to reboot and get back to what NBC has long been known for: making high-quality 10 p.m. (EST) dramas and offering up a tried-but-true late-night slate. Gaspin may not be the real villain — Zucker probably deserves most of the blame — but the network needs a sacrificial lamb, and he's the juiciest candidate.

Harsh? You bet. But NBC execs made their own bed. Now they have to cry in it.

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