Want to be the toast of the town? Quit! Want to be a pariah? Hang in there. If Conan O’Brien departs NBC as expected, he’ll be part of a push that has made quitting au courant. In fact, an argument can be made that Tinseltown is actually in a golden age of packing it in, largely because the media business is in such a state of upheaval.
Consider Oprah Winfrey’s decision to give up her wildly lucrative syndicated daytime talk show to focus on the new cable channel she is launching with Discovery. Or the tactful way in which the creators of Lost said three years ago that the show’s 2010 season will be their last—and that all the show’s head-bending threads will be tied together. Just last week, Simon Cowell announced that he is stepping away from ratings juggernaut American Idol at the end of this season, and Tobey Maguire dropped out of Spider-Man 4 after director Sam Raimi did the same.
Of course, financial self-interest plays a role in many of the recent departures. And there are famous Hollywood exceptions, like Sean Connery, who first gave up being James Bond back in the day because he was bored and didn’t want to be typecast. (A few years ago, Mr. Connery gave up acting altogether in disgust.) And depending on what you read and believe, Alec Baldwin may or may not be contemplating something similar—if the talk that he is quitting acting proves true, that’s a great coda on all this, since he plays the mercurial NBC network suit on 30 Rock and is about to co-host the Oscars.
All this movement is fascinating because the normal state of the media and entertainment worlds is to be filled with people clinging to sinecures long after they should. It’s not hard to think of other examples, both current and past, of people and shows that are on downward arcs but keep chugging on and hanging in. (To posit just a few: Entourage; reunion tours by any band considered part of the “British Invasion”; Rockys IV and V; latter-day Lou Dobbs before he got with the program and departed CNN.) Of course, part of the mythology of stardom, whether you are talent or mogul, is that you are irreplaceable—like Michael Eisner came off when he ran Disney. Even when things are not going your way, the perception is created that success is an omelette for which only you know the recipe. On the other hand, deciding to bow out on top—or near it, or because of a creative objection—requires a level of self-awareness that is rare in the biz on either coast. (On this score, I’m often reminded of a line from a paperback I once read by 1970s ghost-hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren, of Amityville Horror fame, who said that an important thing to understand about ghosts is that “they don’t realize they are dead.” But I digress.)
Though hailed at the time as an example of GE-style managerial ingenuity, the plan to promise Mr. O’Brien The Tonight Show five years hence was fakakta from the get-go. “When I signed my new contract, I felt that the timing was right to plan for my successor, and there is no one more qualified than Conan,” Jay Leno said in the press release announcing the move, in September 2004. At the time, he may honestly have felt that way, but a lot can change in five or six years. In September 2004, John Kerry was the Democratic presidential nominee; and who can name the movie that topped the box office that week? (Aptly: The Forgotten.)
Amid all the Zuckerfreude at The Tonight Show, regardless of who is behind the desk, it is for now a challenged asset on a challenged and much-ridiculed TV network that is part of a conglomerate that is about to be sold to new owners who will undoubtedly have a different view on how to run it. Mr. Leno is returning to the Washington Wizards, not the Chicago Bulls. This week, he spoke out in his defense and has a point that he is not (necessarily) the show-stealing villain he’s been pilloried as by the late-night fraternity. After all, NBC is calling the shots, and Conan could have made room for him and stayed at 12:05. In a different environment, Mr. O’Brien’s “people of earth” statement might have come off as ungrateful or petulant. Still, when Conan called foul and pushed back, Mr. Leno could have just quit—and how cool would that have made him?