By ADAM BUCKMAN
NEW YORK, Jan. 22, 2010 — Where, oh, where are the broadcasting executives of yesteryear, the ones who would never tolerate wayward air talent who would use their airwaves to brutally lambast their own stations or networks?
If they had the opportunity to watch Conan O’Brien blasting NBC left and right these last two weeks on “The Tonight Show,” those execs — the ones from an era long ago, who weren’t afraid to exercise their power, and who regarded air talent as children in need of adult supervision (and discipline) — wouldn’t recognize their business today.
Sure, Conan’s nightly battle of wits with NBC has fueled a sharp (and much-needed) uptick in the ratings for “Tonight” these last two weeks or so. But at what cost? The accumulation of hard-edged humor, emanating from their own stages and skewering NBC management night after night, has only succeeded in planting an image in the public brain of a giant communications company in chaos, whose managers are so ineffective that a guy they fired is allowed to continue appearing on their air, spending their money and impugning their reputations.
Hey, it’s not that I have sympathy for TV executives. Indeed, I’m having as much fun as everyone else watching them get splattered with mud every night. It’s just that I keep returning to the same thought: What is wrong with this picture?
I can still vividly recall the time nearly 20 years ago when one of CBS’s highest-ranking execs, a division president, schooled me in the ways of managing broadcast talent over lunch in his private dining room at CBS headquarters. I had asked him what he thought of Howard Stern, who was then in the first years of his growing notoriety as the nation’s foremost practitioner of what would come to be labeled “shock radio.”
“Children,” this executive said dismissively, frowning between bites of his lunch. “Air talent – they’re all children. And that’s how you have to treat them. Like children.”
And I can remember when fired air personalities were really fired. Once upon a time, tradition held that, once they were fired, air talent was barred from the facilities, lest they engage in malicious mischief detrimental to the company. This custom was most notable in the radio business, owing to a handful of occasions when fired disc jockeys returned to work, locked themselves in their studios and would then play a record such as “Feelings” or “You Light Up My Life” as many consecutive times as they could before private security or the police were able to dislodge them.
What is the problem with these NBC executives who are permitting Conan O’Brien to whine and complain every night on their network and on their dime? And why are they letting him have a “farewell” broadcast? Maybe NBC management felt that, if they abruptly shut down production on O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” last week, when he informed them he would not accept a “Tonight Show” starting at 12:05 a.m., that they and their company would take some sort of bath in the media and in the court of public opinion.
But it would have been no worse than what has happened as a result of allowing O’Brien to continue. And at least the people running NBC would look like they possessed backbones, and were really in charge of their company, if they’d shown Conan the door instead of seeming to grant him carte blanche to wage a public war on them at their expense.
As things stand now, tonight’s farewell show will likely be the highest-rated of O’Brien’s entire, short-lived tenure on “The Tonight Show,” which possibly sets him up nicely to become established on a competing network by next fall.
Contact Adam Buckman: AdamBuckman14@gmail.com