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Adalian Column: Stroking, Slapping NBC

AdalianConan O’Brien can be forgiven for feeling like he’s traveled back in time to 1994 of late.

The mid-’90s were the dark ages for the pale red-headed kid from Beantown. He had just taken over NBC’s “Late Night” from David Letterman, and the critical response was not kind. Tom Shales, who sometimes graces these pages, called Mr. O’Brien’s show “an hour of aimless dawdle masquerading as a TV program.”

Eventually the tide turned. Critics (including Mr. Shales) took a second look, ratings rose, deals started being measured in years rather than days. Conan became a late-night icon in his own right.

So why are so many in the media now freaking out over Mr. O’Brien’s scheduled takeover of “The Tonight Show” next year?

After years of bashing, bemoaning or simply ignoring the straight-down-the-middle comedy of Jay Leno, some late-night observers are reacting to his imminent departure from the Peacock as nothing short of a comedy apocalypse.

Conan is too outside the mainstream to take over “Tonight,” they rant. Executives at NBC “are probably wishing they’d never put the Leno-O’Brien succession in motion,” laments the Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan, one of my favorite TV scribes.

Oy.

Sure, in a perfect world, Mr. Leno would get to die while still at his “Tonight Show” desk. Mr. O’Brien wouldn’t mind waiting until he got his AARP card before taking over.

But what so many seem to have forgotten is that if NBC hadn’t promised Mr. Leno’s gig to him in 2004, Mr. O’Brien almost certainly would have been snatched up by ABC or Fox. NBC would have had no logical successor in place when Mr. Leno did move along.

In other words, some unpleasantness was unavoidable.

ABC last week made it clear that it would love to have Mr. Leno join its lineup. If Mr. Leno wants to go through the pain of launching yet another show, ABC is the best place he could do it. And Jimmy Kimmel probably would benefit from having a more solid lead-in, even if it meant a later time slot.

But NBC’s critics once again are underestimating Mr. O’Brien’s skills. As his hosting gigs on the Emmys have shown, he is a man who knows how to connect with viewers of all stripes, even under the least ideal situations.

What’s more, I suspect Mr. O’Brien may have a large contingent of fans in their 30s and 40s who have drifted away from his show as they’ve grown older—not because they stopped liking him, but because the responsibilities that come with age send them to bed earlier. These viewers have no use for Mr. Leno, but they’ll probably welcome a chance to reconnect with Mr. O’Brien at an earlier hour.

Under Jeff Zucker, NBC has made any number of bone-headed moves. The network’s fading Emmy nomination tally is the latest example of how the network has allowed its once-mighty brand as the home of quality TV to all but disintegrate.

But in the matter of Jay vs. Conan, NBC deserves some slack. And Mr. O’Brien deserves a break.

* * *

If Emmy voters had a message for the broadcast networks this year, it was this: No more excuses.

The basic-cable breakthroughs by AMC and FX—along with strong showings by ad-supported nets TNT, USA, Bravo, Sci Fi and A&E—demonstrated that you can make a creative splash even when operating under the constraints of commercial TV.

Broadcasters have long whined that HBO’s success at the Emmys was powered largely by its ability to spend lavishly on series production. When that didn’t work, they took refuge in the fact that HBO didn’t answer to advertisers.

And yet FX didn’t break the bank to make “Damages,” at least compared to the cost of producing a “Grey’s Anatomy.” AMC still airs commercials in between smoke-filled scenes of “Mad Men.”

Cable still has some major advantages over broadcasters when it comes to Emmy competition. Most of its series produce just 13 episodes per season, versus the 22-plus on the Big Five.

But network executives wondering why they don’t get the same Emmy love they used to need to stop blaming the Emmy voting system and instead take a long, hard look at the way they develop and nurture new shows.

With the exception of ABC, which has been a creative beacon under Steve McPherson, the broadcast networks have consistently chosen comfort over creativity when cranking out dramas in recent years.

The “CSI” and “Law & Order” franchises may be well-executed, and vital to a balanced prime-time diet. But CBS’ and NBC’s reliance on such safe choices—and Fox’s so far unsuccessful attempts to get in on their game (R.I.P., “K-Ville”)—has sent viewers hungry for challenging fare fleeing to cable.

Even when non-ABC networks come up with good shows, they rarely know what to do with them (three words: “Friday Night Lights”).

It shouldn’t be shocking, then, that this year NBC—the network of “ER,” “The West Wing” and “St. Elsewhere”—has not a single show nominated for best drama. It’s the first time it has been shut out of the category since 1965.

What’s NBC’s excuse for that?

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