Conan O’Brien said good-bye to late-night TV last Thursday and hardly anybody noticed.
It was not his fault. He did not change, but the times did, along with his circumstances. His show, “Conan” on TBS, had long been whittled down to a drab, bare-bones half-hour, shorn of, among other things, his band and the other half-hour that once made it a one-hour show.
At the time of his farewell last week, O’Brien, 58, was the longest-running, still-active host in late-night television, having lasted just shy of 28 years since he followed David Letterman as host of NBC’s “Late Night” on Sept. 13, 1993.
Had Conan said good-bye in some other era, his finale would almost certainly have been grander, more widely covered by the media, and in the long run probably longer remembered too.
If he wished to produce the kind of elaborate send-off that so many of his former peers got to enjoy when they ended their shows, then his wish was not granted. Instead, his farewell show was a subdued, quiet affair.
It was a far cry from so many other late-night farewells -- Johnny Carson’s (1992), Jay Leno’s (2014), David Letterman’s (2015), Stephen Colbert’s final “Colbert Report” (2014) and even Craig Ferguson’s last “Late Late Show” (also 2014), which was one of the finest of these kinds of shows that has ever been produced.
Note the dates of those finales. The most recent was Letterman’s in May 2015 (for which the Foo Fighters interrupted their tour of South America to fly all the way to New York to play “Everlong” for Dave).
Six years is not that long a time in the grand scheme of things, but in our fast-evolving television industry, six years can feel like a lifetime.
Perhaps if Conan was still on a broadcast network (i.e., a “platform” with higher ratings and a built-in audience for late-night shows), and the year was, say, 2015, his farewell to late-night might have made for a grander finale.
But as readers of this TV Blog do not need me to tell them, the days of mass audiences and, hence, mass interest in things like late-night hosts saying good-bye or long-running shows having their series finales are simply not the big, grand events they once were.
And if six years seems like a lifetime in the arc of TV history, then 28 years must seem to Conan like several lifetimes.
Indeed, he got the job as host of “Late Night” in 1993 just after the Carson era came to a close -- and also because of it -- as Letterman moved to CBS and Leno won “The Tonight Show.”
Once upon a time, Conan hosted “The Tonight Show,” too, for a brief time until Leno won the show back. After the dust settled on that debacle, Conan took up residence at TBS for 10-and-a-half years.
And now, that is over. It is doubtful that another late-night show will come his way again for the simple reason that the kind of late-night shows he hosted are not really the same anymore. Today, it is all politics and sarcasm and, no surprise, lower ratings for all.