Oh, how I'm going to miss my Conan mornings. Yes, I confess that I was among those insufficiently charmed by Conan O'Brien's "Tonight" during most of its run to become a regular viewer at 11:35, and I never bothered to TiVo it, either. So Conan mornings for me have been a very recent development, thanks to media outlets from Gawker to WSJ.com that were more than happy to direct me to online highlights of Conan's deliciously nasty NBC-bashing monologues and bits from the previous night, as well as those of his talk-show colleagues.
But now Conan's off the air -- and reportedly muzzled thanks to the terms of his gazillion-dollar exit package. Jay Leno, you've gotta figure, will have to quit his whining about NBC too, now that he's gotten what he wants, and at some point even David Letterman will lose interest. So the national crisis known as Lenogate will finally wind down and we'll have closure, right?
Well, no. Because the man who engineered this fiasco and the general demise of NBC, Jeff Zucker (president and CEO of NBC Universal), still, bizarrely, has his job. In fact, he doesn't even really seem to fully grasp that he's at fault. When the New York Times, in a page-one, above-the-fold story, declared that "the network is in shambles" and that its "overall finances are crumbling" (from $1 billion in profit less than a decade ago, to a projected $100 million loss this year), Zucker offered the paper this defense: "We live in a society today that loves a soap opera. Three months ago it was David Letterman. Six weeks ago it was Tiger Wood's problems. Today it's NBC's problems."
Um, sure, Jeff. Tell yourself that. All of us who think you're blindingly incompetent, and have been for years, are just serial bitches and bullies who pick our targets for sport. It's merely NBC's turn, is all; this, too, will pass. Suuuure.
Unfortunately, the one thing that might convince Zucker that maybe he's a tiny bit responsible for the destruction of NBC doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon. Industry consensus is that he'll get to ride things out until Comcast succeeds in its bid to acquire a controlling stake in NBC Universal; in November, The Wall Street Journal reported that "regulatory approval is expected to take from six months to more than a year."
Well, my fellow Americans, I say: Screw that! We can't wait that long! It's time to rise up and refuse to sit back while Jeff Zucker continues to destroy a great American media company and its broadcast franchises. It's time for an intervention -- an intervention of the very highest order.
Remember this headline from last spring? Government Forces Out Wagoner at GM. That's the sort of thing I have in mind.
Now, you might argue that the White House, which engineered the ouster, was entitled to dismiss General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner for one reason: because the taxpayer bail-out of GM effectively made him a government employee. But while Washington's power over Detroit has historically been sporadic and fleeting, the federal government has always had direct control over the broadcast industry. From television's earliest days, it's been understood that the airwaves belong to the public -- broadcast television is a public trust -- and thus the government licenses broadcast frequencies to media companies literally on our collective behalf. If anything, the federal scrutiny of Comcast-NBCU makes clear that we the people are, or should be, in charge.
A couple weeks back when Conan issued his remarkable "People of Earth" opening salvo at NBC, he said that he said that he was refusing to participate in the destruction of "The Tonight Show ... the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting." Regardless of how you feel about "Tonight" now or in the past, his statement resonated because pretty much everyone has come to cherish certain TV shows as bona fide American cultural landmarks.
I mean, if Jeff Zucker decided he wanted to destroy NBC's headquarters with a "makeover" by, say, installing aluminum siding on Rockefeller Center, we'd stop him, right?
Television matters. The television industry matters. TV shows matter.
Pop culture is arguably America's greatest export. General Motors sold just over 2 million cars last year, but broadcast television feeds into basically 99.9% of American homes.
And so I have this to say:
Man up, Barack, just like you did last spring with GM. Do what all of America wants you to do: Fire Jeff Zucker.*
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.
* I'm only half-kidding.