Senior film-TV-digital media major Sam Wunderl was interning for “The Tonight Show” with Conan O’Brien, before O’Brien on Thursday struck a deal with NBC, ending his contract.
Wunderl said he was planning to stay in Los Angeles until June, but the uncertain future of the show has left many on staff worried for their jobs.
Wunderl said the deal between O’Brien and NBC was at a lengthy standstill prior to Thursday because Conan wanted more severance pay for his staff.
“I’ve talked to a few staff members about it, and they have no plan either,” he said. “Most everyone at that show was on ‘Late Night’ in New York, so most of them have moved out to LA from there.”
Of the 190 staff members, 70 relocated from New York just one year ago.
The settlement ended O’Brien’s close-to-20-year career with NBC. With two years left on his current contract, O’Brien will receive $32.5 million to leave the show early. Including staff compensation, NBC will be out about $40 million, according to the New York Post.
Amber Watts, an assistant professor in the FTDM department, said NBC’s support of Jay Leno, who will be assuming O’Brien’s role as host of “Tonight,” dates back to 1992 when Leno was chosen over then-“Late Night” host David Letterman to replace Johnny Carson. Watts said that later, O’Brien came to “Late Night,” pulled in great ratings from the 18-49 age demographic and received offers from other networks. In order to keep O’Brien with the network, Watts said, NBC promised him the “Tonight Show” in 2009 when Leno was scheduled to retire. When fears arose that Leno would not retire as expected, NBC suspended all of their popular weekly 9 p.m. CST programs to give Leno his own show, rather than facing his possible departure to another network.
“The fact that NBC was doing this kind of thing set the industry abuzz,” Watts said. “It was bold, and it was pretty much doomed to be a failure.”
Watts said NBC’s argument that Conan’s ratings were subpar wasn’t entirely accurate because the poor performance of Leno’s show contributed to O’Brien’s failures. As the beginning time slot in nightly programming, Leno cost both local affiliates and O’Brien ratings because viewers tended to turn off their TVs after the disappointing show. If people weren’t watching Leno, then they weren’t watching local news and they weren’t watching O’Brien, Watts said.
In fact, Watts said O’Brien pulls in better ratings than both of his competitors in the 18-49 age demographic, which is the most desirable group to the television industry.
In any case, Watts said Leno’s projected drop in ratings upon his return to the “Tonight Show” is not the biggest loss the network will feel.
“The biggest net effect is that it’s done horrible things for the image of NBC,” she said. “This is sort of just a very permanent example of how the network has failed on many levels in the past decade.”
Throughout the controversy, support for O’Brien showed up in many places.
Wunderl attended a rally Monday outside the NBC studios, where O’Brien greeted fans on the roof with a megaphone. Wunderl said some of his fellow interns have ordered “I’m with Coco” T-shirts with “intern” on the back to support O’Brien.
Wunderl said there have also been signs outside the studio asking people to honk for Conan.
“You couldn’t even walk down the street without a bunch of cars driving by and honking,” he said.
But Wunderl said so far the best show of support came from ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel doing an hour-long imitation of Leno on his show, “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
“There were a bunch of times when the mood at work was just really dour, and everyone was in a bad mood and worried,” Wunderl said. “You’re really glad that you’re working at a place where people really like it, and you’re doing something that people are enjoying and people are standing up for.it kind of counteracts how terrible some of the feelings were just being there.”
As of Thursday, a Facebook group titled “Team Conan” had more than 194,000 members. Leno’s comedian fan page, with more than 48,000 members, was oddly-enough sporting the “I’m with Coco” picture.
Steven Rupp, a 2009 TCU graduate and member of the “Curtis Needs a Ride” comedy troupe, said his comedian friends already found Leno untrustworthy because his life lacked challenges that lent themselves to an edgier brand of comedy.
“Everyone is kind of on Conan’s side because he’s a comedian’s comedian,” Rupp said. “He’s the type of person that has worked his way up basically to the top through kind of a nontraditional route.”
Wunderl said the settlement announcement Thursday didn’t clear up questions staff members still had concerning their severances. But, Wunderl said, the rumor around the office is that O’Brien will be compensating much of the staff out of his own pocket.
In addition to full-time staff, Wunderl said interns from universities across the country are now wondering what the rest of the semester will hold.
“The interns are pretty much in the same boat, and so far I’ve been surprised that no one at NBC Universal has made an effort to place the stranded interns in any of their other departments,” he said.
Wunderl is a monologue intern for the show, and his research has contributed to the creation of several jokes featured on recent shows. He said it’s been harder to write new material now that most of the jokes in the monologue are about NBC.
“It’s not too disappointing though,” Wunderl said. “Because those NBC jokes are the best jokes!”