I had been toiling away in a job that I liked, but suddenly, I had a chance to switch to a better time slot.
This was, say, six years ago. True story. A news producer that I respected and liked was leaving, and I lobbied hard to take her job. I was willing to move, I said. Willing to take on a new challenge earlier in the day. This is what I wanted. Hell, it wasn't my dream job, but in small-market television, it was as good as I was going to get.
I got it. And then after three months, she came back.
At first, they said they wouldn't move me back to my later shift. I'd been loyal to the company, they said. They respected that. I wasn't doing quite the job they though I would, but we'd get through it, they said. Just give it time.
And yet, I knew my time was up. Give it a few months, I told my friends. They'll want to go back to the way things were. They'll undo what I re-did.
It happened pretty much like that. I got called into an office one day to talk to a pair of managers. Both told me I was better suited to produce a later newscast. That was simply where I belonged. The producer who I respected and liked was getting her show back. I didn't blame her. But I did quit.
I don't know Conan O'Brien, although I have met him. He came to our little TV station here in Charlotte last summer as part of his media tour to promote his new gig at The Tonight Show. He had a busy day. TV stations from all over the Carolinas and beyond were here to meet the new host. They shot promos. Sales folks brought clients in to schmooze. It was a long, tiring and exhausting affair that he'd had to endure in city after city.
Yet, Conan insisted on meeting everyone. He made a point to talk to everybody in the station, from the guy running the switcher in master control to the folks on the assignment desk to us producers working down in the pit. He posed for pictures with everyone. Including me.
I've been a fan of his since Late Night went on the air. I got lucky in the late 90's during a visit to New York City. My folks scored tickets to Conan and Letterman. At Letterman's theater, staffers made a point to tell us to bring the energy. They told us to laugh at things, even if they weren't funny.
At Late Night, we got no instructions. Before the show, Conan and the band were dancing in the aisles with us, trying to get us fired up. We laughed twice as much.
In the end, what killed Conan's show, other than his devotion to the institution of The Tonight Show, is the unrealistic expectation that network television can function like the institution it used to be. Gone are the days where audiences come, en masse, to one place to watch one thing, save the Super Bowl or American Idol. Instead, people connect with the things they enjoy on their terms, on their own time, in the venues they see fit. It might be on Hulu. It might be on their DVR's. It might be on Gawker.
I'll admit-- I didn't watch The Tonight Show when I should have. A guy I know made the point that if I and the rest of us had, Conan wouldn't be off the air. That's true and false at the same time. I didn't watch on TV, but I did watch. I didn't even rush home to watch the beginning of his final Tonight Show, because I knew I could catch it online.
Nobody really gets the new business model of TV, because there isn't one. So we rely on the old one. It's true in news, it's true in entertainment, and it's true on The Tonight Show. Now, you can connect more directly with the people you like. You can get their dish on Facebook, read behind the scenes blogs, watch backstage videos, and follow them directly on Twitter. Sometimes, they even write back. You no longer need to meet Conan in person or tune in nightly to get to know him. More and more, the folks on TV are down here with the rest of us. I'd venture to say that's not a bad thing.
Except, of course, when ratings are the only way you can figure out how to make real money. That's the way TV works, for better or worse, until we figure out a better way. Until then, we'll continue to have people undo what we re-did, while the rest of you tune in, wherever you might be.