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Lisa de Moraes's TV Column: Conan O'Brien, Newark Mayor Call a Truce

Newark Mayor Booker has dished out gibes.
Newark Mayor Booker has dished out gibes. (Mel Evans - AP)

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On Oct. 8, Conan played his trump card. The secretary of state appeared in a taped message calling for a truce and a negotiated end to their differences:

"The time has come to make peace. . . . Then you can end this silly feud and you can go back to what you both do best. For Mayor Booker, that means leading Newark toward a new era of growth and prosperity. For Conan that means dancing around the stage and making lame jokes about my pantsuits. Thank you. And Conan, please don't bother me again."

"The idea is not a new one. All the talk shows do it," our late-night pundit explained. " 'The Colbert Report' does this kind of thing about every seven weeks. You work up a little news cycle. You need to do this when you're making 200 shows a year. . . . These things really help if you're in the game. They're not in the game."

In fact, while the faux feud seems to have bolstered Booker, Conan isn't seeing similar popularity spikes. For Booker, the gag has gotten him a few weeks of free national exposure on a show that charges around 40 thou per 30-second ad, and the mayor now ranks fourth among elected officials on WeFollow.com, which tracks Twitter popularity, according to Huffingtonpost.com. Only President Obama, John McCain and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom are ahead of Booker.

But Conan's numbers haven't moved an inch -- even on the night he scored the Clinton appearance. During the second week of the TV season, when the faux feud was in full throttle, Conan averaged 2.7 million viewers, about 2 million fewer than Jay Leno attracted as host of the same show the second week of the previous TV season. And among the 18-to-34-year-old viewers Conan is supposed to attract and NBC is said to focus on in late night, Conan clocked 700,000 -- the same crowd Leno attracted one year earlier.

NBC hopes the denouement of the Booker-O'Brien kerfuffle attracts a lot of viewers -- both to the Friday broadcast and its online afterlife. To some extent it will depend on how well Booker performs. When Booker's good -- as when he appeared on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show on election night in 2008 -- he's very, very good. But when he's bad -- as when he appeared on "The Colbert Report" on Sept. 14 to plug "Brick City" -- he's horrid.

Conan's feud with Booker is similar to the one Colbert ginned up in 2007 when he threatened to burn his honorary doctorate of fine arts that Knox College awarded him when he gave the school's commencement address the previous year. On his show he said he would torch the document on air if the school bestowed the same honor on Bill Clinton.

A faux feud erupted; Knox College President Roger Taylor finally offered to go on Colbert's show to explain the difference between Colbert's degree and Clinton's. And, in his commencement speech, Clinton spoke thusly:

"When Lincoln ran for president in 1860, the truth is that's why he got this honorary degree. Your college was trying to help him get elected and you wanted to give him a little boost. One hundred forty-six years later, you gave Stephen Colbert a degree to give his ratings a boost. That's what Al Gore now calls an assault on reason."


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