Conan O'Brien to NBC: Post-Leno Plan Kills 'The Tonight Show'

Why the Talk-Show Host Is So Angry at His Network

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Conan O'Brien's striking public rebuke to NBC on Tuesday, in which he attacked the network's plan to shoehorn Jay Leno back into late-night and push "The Tonight Show" into the next morning, reveals a lot of frustration. And it's no wonder.

Conan O'Brien
Conan O'Brien Credit: NBC
Mr. O'Brien came out of nowhere so many years ago to carve a name for himself in late-night TV as a clever, cerebral humorist, but now says NBC is asking him to participate in the "destruction" of NBC's venerable "Tonight Show" franchise -- running it at 12:05 a.m. instead of its longtime 11:35 p.m. roost.

"For 60 years the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news," Mr. O'Brien said. "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."

A spokesman for NBC's late-night programming could not be reached for immediate comment.

Simply put, however, no matter what Mr O'Brien does, NBC's recent moves have put him in a very bad position with advertisers and viewers alike. Here's why:

  • NBC already set him on a downward spiral by putting Jay Leno on at 10 p.m. If you take the guy who most of the nation watches at 11:35 p.m, and move him to 10 p.m., you're bound to take a large portion of viewers who like Mr. Leno down to that timeslot -- leaving fewer for Mr. O'Brien.

  • It's well-known among advertisers that late-night audiences start tuning out and hitting the sack after the first main segment of content at 11:35 p.m. All the networks have spent the last few year moving more advertising into the first half hour of shows such as "Tonight" and "The Late Show" because they get more eyeballs for them at that time compared with post-midnight. In fact, CBS and other networks have spent time restructuring the ad loads of their late-night programs in order to goose the "commerical ratings" that are now the bedrock of TV-ad transactions.

  • By moving Mr. Leno to half an hour after late local news, you're telling audiences that this is the person they need to watch for the funny jokes, newsy monologue and hear-it-now moments that are the comfort food of late night. Mr. O'Brien would be relegated to second banana, but still unable to do the snarky offbeat humor at "Tonight" that worked so well at "Late Night."

  • NBC is monkeying with late-night tradition. Mr. Leno's new show will feel truncated and rushed, while Mr. O'Brien's 12:05 a.m. program will feel like an afterthought. So hard-core late night fans are essentially being asked to sit through one monologue, at least one Leno humor segment, maybe a guest, an O'Brien monologue, more humor segments, then guest stars and perhaps a muscial number. That's not the natural rhythym of the wee-hours viewer and one has to wonder if NBC has researched audiences' receptivity to the formula as well as how ads will fit into the mix.

    It's not clear that Mr. O'Brien has a place to land at the moment. "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," Mr. O'Brien said. "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."

    ~ ~ ~
    Mr. O'Brien's statement:

    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.

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