Friday, January 15, 2010

Thoughts on the Conan O'Brien Debacle

Like a lot of other people, I've been following the Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien time slot war. The latest news is that NBC executive Dick Ebersol is trashing Conan O'Brien as an "astounding failure" who is "gutless" and "chicken-hearted." Ouch.

My friends on Facebook have been debating this topic all week - when they're not despairing over the situation in Haiti - and I've been scanning a few Twitter threads about it. One thing I notice is that people either love Conan and hate Jay, or vice versa. Another thing I notice is that Conan's biggest defenders tend to be Gen Xers.

In fact, Gen Xers are pretty pissed off about the whole thing. They're buying "I'm With CoCo" T-shirts that have Conan's likeness on them, and I have a few Gen X friends who are substituting his likeness for their Facebook profile picture as a sign of solidarity. Twitter pages are springing up in support of The Redheaded One.

Why would Gen Xers care so much about a highly-paid entertainer getting pushed out his TV time slot, especially in a recession rife with real-world worries? I've been thinking about this all week, and I think I've figured out, in part, what is setting Gen Xers off.

Here's my theory: Gen Xers have been waiting for Baby Boomers to retire so they can have their jobs, and it's not happening. In this economy, it's even less likely to happen anytime soon. So Gen Xers - the lucky ones still lucky enough to be employed, anyway - are patiently marking time in the workplace, waiting to move up in the pecking order, if only those pesky Baby Boomers would suck it up and retire.

Then Gen Xers see Conan O'Brien - a fellow Gen Xer - getting pushed aside in favor of Jay Leno - a Baby Boomer - and it touches a nerve. Gen Xers absolutely hate what they see happening to Conan, because his plight reminds them of their own work experiences, only on a massive, public scale. Gen Xers who have felt thrown under the bus or disrespected at work by their elders identify with Conan right now.

So it's not surprising that Gen Xers' tweets and status updates on the topic tend to echo what they're saying (quietly) about Boomers in the workplace. The wording is virtually the same, actually. Jay Leno should suck it up and move on. Make space for someone new. Count his money and retire. Pass the torch. Step aside and let the next generation run the show.

Gen Xer Jimmy Kimmel summed up his generation's anger the other night when he spoke directly to Jay Leno about the scheduling debacle. Watching it was both funny and uncomfortable.

It doesn't help to have management (NBC executives, mostly Boomers) dissing Conan so publicly as a "failure" and giving him only seven months to find his footing, job-wise, before passing the mic/torch back to Jay Leno. Will Gen Xers start saying to each other, "Gee, man, sorry to hear you got Leno'ed out of that promotion"? Will "getting Lenoed" become the workplace equivalent of getting "Scozzafavaed"? Who knows, but it's interesting to ponder.

Jay Leno, meanwhile, might be just as much a victim in all of this as Conan O'Brien. It's hard to know for sure. Only the insiders at NBC know what's really going on, but perception is everything to us out here in TV viewer land. And a lot of Gen Xers don't like what they see happening at NBC.

Update: A "Rally for CoCo!" will be held in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle on Monday, January 18th. See this Facebook page for more information.

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