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Scott D. Pierce: NBC unfair to Conan, as well as his competitors

Conan O'Brien took over as host of "The Tonight Show" on June 1.
Conan O'Brien took over as host of "The Tonight Show" on June 1.
Paul Drinkwater, NBC

PASADENA, Calif. — The folks at NBC don't often admit mistakes.

It's not that they don't make mistakes. Heck, they're in last place in the ratings. Their prime-time schedule is such a mess that they've had to turn five hours of it over to Jay Leno this fall.

But they don't often admit that they've made any mistakes on the way to their mired-in-last-place standing.

Which is why it was sort of momentous when Rick Ludwin, NBC's executive vice president of late-night and prime-time series, so readily agreed that it was a mistake to declare Conan O'Brien "the new king of late night" after his first week as host of "The Tonight Show."

Yours truly asked Ludwin if he had it to do over again, would NBC issue that Conan-is-the-king press release? Ludwin flatly said, "No."

The original declaration was the source of no small amount of humor — even derision — within the TV industry. Among those who found it more than a bit odd were the folks at CBS.

"Well, we said, "Really? Really? It seemed premature," said CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler.

As indeed it was. After a huge opening night, the audience for "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien" declined steadily — and dramatically — through that first week. A few weeks later, CBS's "Late Show With David Letterman" overtook "The Tonight Show" and has consistently attracted more viewers.

From Aug. 3-14, Letterman repeats were watched by more viewers than original episodes of O'Brien.

The situation is by no means finalized. Who knows how things will settle out over the coming months — particularly after Leno's 9-10 p.m. show debuts on Sept. 14?

But at this point, O'Brien holds a very narrow lead among younger viewers — the demographics most prized by advertisers — but Letterman has narrowed that gap to a couple of tenths of a rating point. And in total viewers and households, Letterman holds a substantial lead.

Which is why it's hard to argue with Ludwin when he admits that the Conan-is-the-king declaration was "premature."

But even in admitting a mistake, Ludwin couldn't help but bull his way through with bravado. (He does work for NBC, after all.)

He said the release was issued "because we were very proud of the show. And there were those who predicted that Conan was not going to be broad-based enough to work at (10):30, and we were so thrilled from the numbers from that first week that far exceeded our expectations that we used that phrase in that headline."

That's an excellent way to spin it, but it is, of course, just more spin. Again, there were troubling signs even in the numbers from Conan's first week — that huge drop-off from Monday to Tuesday to Wednesday to Thursday to Friday.

And, quite honestly, the jury is still out on whether Conan is broad-based enough to work as the new "Tonight Show" host. His demographics are better than his overall numbers, but the fact remains that he has lost millions of Leno's viewers.

If you're over the age of 49, the folks at NBC don't care if you watch or not. The network is declaring late-night victory even now because O'Brien holds that narrow lead among that demographic.

"We sell the 18-to-49 demo. That is the business that we're in," said Angela Bromstad, NBC's president of prime-time entertainment.

And, by the way, when Ludwin was asked who is the king of late night, if O'Brien is not, he refused to answer.

The worst part of NBC's premature Conan crowning isn't that it disrespected the competition. That's nothing new in the network business from any of the competitors, and NBC has made it into an art form.

The worst part is that it was totally unfair to O'Brien himself. It isn't his fault NBC issued its stupid … er, uh, premature press release. It isn't his fault that he was tainted with the same arrogance that pervades NBC.

It wasn't his fault that he ended up looking sort of foolish — like a king who quickly lost his crown.

A month from now, a few months from now, a couple of years from now, O'Brien could indeed be the king of late-night television. He's not right now.

And NBC's stupidity didn't make his job any easier.