I want to unnecessarily stress that none of the following in any way discounts my support for Conan O'Brien. The internet is a trecherous place to state anything anti-Conan these days. So let me state that I've been a fan of his since college, and spent many happy hours watching his show over a midnight bowl of Froot Loops. But now that Team Conan has taken over the internet and planted it's flag, it's time to admit some harsh realities.
As much as Conan has a case that he's getting screwed by NBC over the Tonight Show, it's not like there's no reason behind the network's madness. The Tonight Show's ratings were poor right from the get-go, not just since The Jay Leno Show started. One of the major criticisms of Conan was that his style wouldn't adapt to the earlier time slot, and they were right. People either felt that he'd changed himself too much to fit the format, or not enough. They're both right, Conan made a conscious effort to make himself more palatable to the average viewer and cut out some of his more absurd tendencies, which doesn't change the fact that Conan's comedy is by nature absurdist. Letterman watered himself down because he couldn't appeal to a broad audience unless he toned down his bitter sarcasm; even Leno watered himself down, because he couldn't be an everyman unless he was willing to file down all his hard edges. Conan is an everyman because of his hard edges, working to make himself more acceptable for middle-aged middle America makes him seem more Hollywood, not less.
For all of Conan's talk of "a show in its infancy" and "building a lasting audience," there seemed to be limited momentum in play. The Tonight Show was being beat soundly by Letterman, and it's not as if Conan was a sure thing coming in - even back on Late Night, Craig Ferguson's ratings were similar to Conan's despite starting a half-hour later. Even Craig Kilbourne used to compete with him. Conan appeals to a market of people who don't watch late night television consistently, which is why he's only getting 2.5 million people to watch his show but 30 million people to complain that they're cancelling it.
It's no different than "Arrested Development," for all the people who loved the show, it still got cancelled. The fans complain that the show arrived just a little late, if it was on television now it wouldn't have gotten axed. But they're wrong: the problem wasn't with the show, the problem was that the fans couldn't be bothered to really stick with the show week to week. There were too many people willing to wait for the DVDs, too many willing to catch up "whenever they found the time." I know, because I was one of them.
No matter what anyone says, there wasn't anything wrong with Conan. He did as fine a job hosting the Tonight Show as you could ask him to, the problem was that he himself just lacked the broad appeal necessary to sustain that sort of show. That's why Leno, as vanilla as he seems, as much of a hack as his critics claim him to be*, still fits the bill better as a Tonight Show host. No one loves him, but no one's really bothered. And when you're a show that's designed mostly to lull people to sleep, that's all you can really ask for.
Conan shouldn't go to FOX, he shouldn't try to put himself into competition with Leno - as much as popular support seem to dictate he could win the battle, he couldn't. His fans are too fickle to watch his show consistently - Christian Lander mocked them for this today on "Stuff White People Like" - and he'd be much better suited to finding a market that suits the niche he feels. He should go to Comedy Central and start a talk show after The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Cable's a different world: if two and a half million people watch him there, he'll be considered a massive success. And there's only so long you want to keep playing that lovable loser card.
* I'm one of these critics: Leno is a hack. just want to remind everyone that I watched the first episode of The Jay Leno Show, and while every major publication referred to it as "groundbreaking" and "the future of television," I pointed out what should have been inherently obvious: the show was terrible and would fail sooner rather than later. It seems amazing now that anyone ever thought anything else.