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Conan's Faux Feud Fizzles as Ratings Ploy

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, October 15, 2009

Conan O'Brien will meet with Newark Mayor Cory Booker on NBC's "Tonight Show" Friday, in what is being billed as a summit between two warring parties brokered by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, but is in fact a good old-fashioned, ginned-up publicity stunt that so far seems to be doing Booker a world of good, but Conan -- maybe not so much.

It all started, not coincidentally, during the first official week of the new TV season when Conan noted on his show that Booker wants to set up a citywide program to improve residents' health.

"The health-care program would consist of a bus ticket out of Newark," Conan snarked.

Booker took to YouTube a couple of days later to ban Conan from using Newark's airport. "Try JFK, buddy!"

The press began to hyperventilate that Booker and Conan were breaking new ground, merging old media and new, Twitter meets TV, blah, blah, blah.

"What they're doing is a very standard promotional thing. Obviously it's cooked up. Obviously it's tied to 'Brick City,' " noted one veteran late-night pundit (who insisted on anonymity in case his next job might be at NBC).

The reference is to a documentary series about Newark, called "Brick City," that premiered on the Sundance Channel (which until about 16 months ago was co-owned by Conan's boss, NBC) on -- look at this -- the first official week of the TV season. Exactly when Conan's feud with Booker erupted.

And, in another of those incredible coincidences, within hours of Friday's Booker-O'Brien Summit, the Sundance Channel will hold a marathon re-running of "Brick City": "for those who'd like to see more of Mayor Booker and his city . . . [after] he appears as a guest on 'The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien' on Friday night following a lengthy tongue-in-cheek dispute the two have been having." (So says Sundance in an urgent news release.)

That lengthy tongue-in-cheek dispute has gone on nonstop for nearly three weeks. When Booker banned Conan from Newark airport, Conan noted its Terminal A is actually in neighboring Elizabeth and got that city not only to agree that he can use the terminal but to rename it Conan O'Brien Terminal when he flies in.

Booker then banned Conan from New Jersey. Conan then launched a full-scale campaign to encircle Newark by "shamelessly sucking up" to officials at municipalities including not only Elizabeth but East Orange, Kearny and Jersey City -- which, he showed viewers on a map, created "a geographic toilet seat around the city of Newark."

"It's your move, Mayor Booker!" he cackled on his show that night.

Booker kept taking to YouTube, most recently to say they are dividing the country and "the last thing we need is Cory states and Coco states" -- Coco being Conan's new nickname.

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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