Team Conan or Team Leno?

Although the Twitterverse is asking if folks are on #TeamConan or #TeamLeno, the real loser in this match is going to be NBC. It’s mind boggling that a huge media company could be so poor at media and public relations. The current battle in the late-night wars comes after a string of poor decisions made by NBC execs over the past six years. Although the late night survival of the fittest game has been going on for much longer than that, the most recent upset has its genesis in 2004 decision to persuade Conan O’Brien to stay at NBC by seducing him with the promise of hosting The Tonight Show after a five-year waiting period. 

It doesn’t take a seasoned television executive to know that five years is a lifetime in TV-land, where popularity can wane within the hour, but, apparently, NBC Universal’s Chief Executive Jeff Zucker was desperate to keep the popular late-night star on the network. Fast-forward five years later when Jay Leno is ousted from his comfortable seat as The Tonight Show host in a move that happy viewers found baffling, only to launch an eerily similar show in prime time. Unsurprisingly, Leno and Conan experienced sharp drops in ratings and performed poorly for their respective time slots. 

So now NBC has decided to rectify the situation by putting Leno back on at 11:35 on weeknights and moving O’Brien back a half hour, a solution that O’Brien rejected in a public statement. From there, the mudslinging got interesting with O’Brien, Leno and even David Letterman, using the story and their programs to vent frustrations and grievances through comedic banter. I would completely expect O’Brien to use the platform of his show to mobilize fans to support him. I would even expect him to make jokes and take cheap shots—after all, he is a comedian. 

What’s inexplicable to me is how a company executive like Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports would lash out, calling O’Brien “chicken-hearted and gutless to blame a guy you couldn’t beat in the ratings,” according to The New York Times. (I’m fairly certain that that wasn’t on the key messaging document the PR person prepared.) Ebersol added, “What this is really all about is an astounding failure by Conan,” and later, “It seems like professional jealousy.” Let’s not forget that Conan O’Brien is ostensibly an employee of NBC and this is how his company is talking about him in the media. 

As a PR practitioner, I shudder to think of an executive publicly attacking a competitor is such a harsh way, let alone a current, and beloved, employee of the company. There is no possible positive outcome for making these kinds of statements. They are read by the public, and members of the media, like a juvenile name-calling exercise on a playground. Instead, NBC could take the high road and stick to focusing on providing viewers with what, and who, they really want at that time slot: in this case, Jay Leno. After all, NBC executives were the ones that set up this doomed arrangement to begin with by yanking Leno from The Tonight Show.

It also seems that NBC executives cooked up the time-switch scheme and publicly discussed it before reaching an agreement with O’Brien. It would seem basic good practice to finalize the terms that would impact one of their biggest stars, before going public with the details, especially when he has his own talk show platform to fire back. According to O’Brien’s Jan. 12 statement, he’ll step down before hosting the show at the 12:05 a.m. hour. It seems that NBC has succeeded in alienating its employees, viewers and industry insiders. The media company might want to consider some emergency media training before the next PR crisis. 

About the Author
Sandra Fathi is founder and president of Affect Strategies ( a public relations, marketing and social media firm in New York. To learn more, visit the Affect blog, Tech Affect ( or follow her on Twitter at