Tonight Show host Conan O'Brien rejected NBC's proposal to have his Tonight Show start a half hour later as a result of the resurrection of a Jay Leno late-night program to start at 11:35 p.m., calling the the proposed move “destruction” of the franchise. In a widely distributed statement, however, O'Brien seemed to want NBC to back off on its plan, saying “my hope is that NBC and I can resolve this.”
The statement represents a throwing down of the gauntlet in a head-to-head battle with Leno, who seems to want his old Tonight Show time slot back in the wake of NBC's cancellation of his disastrous, prime-time Jay Leno Show. O'Brien said he wouldn't agree “to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn't the Tonight Show.”
O'Brien also said he did not want to be “knocking” Jimmy Fallon's Late Night show, which presumably would have also been moved back a half hour, to 1:05 a.m. He noted that he had inherited the program from David Letterman and handed it off to Fallon. The host also stated that he had no offer in-hand, although there has been speculation that he might start a late-night show for Fox.
” … To set the record straight, I currently have no other offer and honestly have no idea what happens next,” O'Brien stated. “My hope is that NBC and I can resolve this quickly so that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of, for a company that values our work.”
Last summer O'Brien moved to L.A. from New York to take over the Tonight Show in a long-planned arrangement that would essentially have pushed Leno into retirement. But Leno resisted, and NBC worked out a deal to keep the host from splitting to another network by offering him a weeknight talk show stripped across the 10 p.m. slot. Even if ratings were low, and they were, the network argued that the Jay Leno Show would be so much cheaper to produce than a drama that it would be worth the drop in viewers.
Affiliates, however, didn't think that way, because Leno's low “lead-in” audiences to their 11 p.m. news programs left some market newscasts in last place in ratings. So NBC canceled the hour-long program and came up with a half-hour, Leno return to late night as a fix. The fix, however, pushed O'Brien back into tomorrow, a move he clearly resents.
But … while Leno's ratings were in the toilet, O'Brien's weren't too hot either. Leno was first-place in late-night. O'Brien lost the lead. NBC wants its old lineup back. But they probably don't want to lose O'Brien to a competing network.
“I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it,” O'Brien stated. “My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of the Tonight Show. But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction.”