NBC’s beset — and from his standpoint most assuredly betrayed — late night talk show host Conan O’Brien has in effect announced that he’s walking away from “The Tonight Show” job after being effectively given a take-it-or-leave-it offer of hosting the show a half hour later so that NBC could find a way to still use the ratings-challenged Jay Leno in late night.
His statement does not disguise his disappointment with NBC or sugar coat the way the choice was presented to him. And he seems genuinely agonizing over doing what he feels is right for the venerable “Tonight Show” francise. Here is his statement as run by the New York Times:
People of Earth:
In the last few days, I’ve been getting a lot of sympathy calls, and I want to start by making it clear that no one should waste a second feeling sorry for me. For 17 years, I’ve been getting paid to do what I love most and, in a world with real problems, I’ve been absurdly lucky. That said, I’ve been suddenly put in a very public predicament and my bosses are demanding an immediate decision.
Six years ago, I signed a contract with NBC to take over “The Tonight Show” in June of 2009. Like a lot of us, I grew up watching Johnny Carson every night and the chance to one day sit in that chair has meant everything to me. I worked long and hard to get that opportunity, passed up far more lucrative offers, and since 2004, I have spent literally hundreds of hours thinking of ways to extend the franchise long into the future. It was my mistaken belief that, like my predecessor, I would have the benefit of some time and, just as important, some degree of ratings support from the prime-time schedule. Building a lasting audience at 11:30 is impossible without both.
But sadly, we were never given that chance. After only seven months, with my “Tonight Show” in its infancy, NBC has decided to react to their terrible difficulties in prime time by making a change in their long-established late night schedule.
Last Thursday, NBC executives told me they intended to move the “Tonight Show” to 12:05 to accommodate the “Jay Leno Show” at 11:35. For 60 years, the “Tonight Show” has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying the “Tonight Show” into the next day 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.” Also, if I accept this move I will be knocking the “Late Night” show, which I inherited from David Letterman and passed on to Jimmy Fallon, out of its long-held time slot. That would hurt the other NBC franchise that I love, and it would be unfair to Jimmy.
So it has come to this: 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. 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. Some people will make the argument that with DVRs and the Internet, a time slot doesn’t matter. But with the “Tonight Show,” I believe nothing could matter more.
There has been speculation about my going to another network but, to set the record straight, I currently have no other offer and honestly have no idea what happens next. 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.
Have a great day and, for the record, I am truly sorry about my hair; it’s always been that way.
Some thoughts about the impact of all of this:
In the end, you have to wonder who advised NBC on the damage control on this Leno-back-to-late-night mess: Tiger Woods?
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Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.