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O’Brien Rejects NBC Shift: He’s Set to Say Good Night

NBC may control its airwaves, but apparently it does not control Conan O’Brien.

Conan O'Brien
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Conan O'Brien

Less than a week after NBC told him it intended to move his “Tonight Show” to a new time, 12:05 a.m., Mr. O’Brien said he would not agree to what he considered a demotion for the institution of “The Tonight Show” — and his own career — by going along with the network’s plan to push him back a half-hour to make room for his most recent predecessor, Jay Leno.

Mr. O’Brien’s statement Tuesday said that he so respected the institution of “The Tonight Show” that he could not participate in what “I honestly believe is its destruction.”

Pointedly, Mr. O’Brien did not resign or indicate he would not show up for work. But an executive at the network who declined to be identified because of continuing negotiations said that Mr. O’Brien would leave once a financial settlement was reached.

By Hollywood standards, Mr. O’Brien’s letter was an extraordinary gesture — releasing a statement to make public his anger at the company paying him tens of millions of dollars before he even reached a settlement.

The closest episode in history may be when Jack Paar walked off the set of “The Tonight Show” in a huff over corporate censorship.

Mr. Paar returned to the show within a month in 1960, but few are predicting a reconciliation between Mr. O’Brien and the network.

NBC executives continued Tuesday to work toward a financial settlement, though some indicated increasing impatience with Mr. O’Brien’s effort to blame the network for the three-car pile-up in late night.

The host, who saw his brief run as host of “Tonight” cut short when NBC decided to restore Mr. Leno to the 11:35 p.m. time period, has been increasingly upset about how he believes he was treated by NBC’s management.

A representative of the host said Tuesday that Mr. O’Brien finally reached the point on Monday where he “sat up all night drafting the statement.”

The statement also took NBC to task for not giving the show more time or supplying stronger lead-in audiences, which could be interpreted as a shot at Mr. Leno’s poor performance at 10 p.m. (Though Mr. O’Brien mentioned Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon in his statement, he never referred to Mr. Leno by name, only by the title of his show.)

“After only seven months,” Mr. O’Brien wrote, “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.”

He hosted the show Tuesday night, even as negotiations, which one participant described as intense, continued throughout the day. But Mr. O’Brien did not hold back on criticizing NBC during his performance.

“Welcome to NBC — where our new slogan is, ‘No longer just screwing up prime time,’ ” he said.

He was also self-effacing in his jokes. “Hello, my name is Conan O’Brien, and I may soon be available for children’s parties.”

Though some rumors appeared saying NBC might be lining up guest hosts, NBC quietly dismissed that notion. Indeed, such a move could have legal implications because it might be interpreted as NBC firing Mr. O’Brien, which could lead to a bigger settlement for him.

Jeff Gaspin, the chairman of NBC Entertainment, who broached the idea last week of shifting the late-night lineup, said he was motivated by trying to retain both stars, not to drive Mr. O’Brien away. But other NBC executives indicated privately that they would be satisfied with a new late-night lineup with Mr. Leno back at “The Tonight Show” at 11:35 and Mr. Fallon settling in at the “Late Night” show at 12:35.

Those executives will apparently get their wish. But questions will linger about whether Mr. Leno will return automatically to his former position of dominance at 11:35 against Mr. Letterman’s show at CBS.

“You have to wonder if Jay is damaged goods after all this,” said one former longtime network programmer who did not want to be identified criticizing the network. “But if they give him ‘The Tonight Show’ back, maybe it ends up all right after a while. But it just seems so unfair to Conan.”

The release of Mr. O’Brien’s statement complicated an already messy legal and programming situation. NBC executives have quietly complained for at least a month that Mr. O’Brien himself was responsible for declining ratings on the show because he had not broadened his appeal from his days hosting NBC’s 12:35 a.m. show, “Late Night.”

NBC has also made it clear that it does not believe it breached Mr. O’Brien’s contract in any way because it offered him the chance to continue on “Tonight.” NBC executives said that Mr. O’Brien’s contract did not include any language that guaranteed the show had to begin at 11:35 p.m.

The counterargument from Mr. O’Brien’s representatives has been that no such language was necessary in this case because “The Tonight Show” has followed the late local news in cities across America for 60 years.

Plenty of money is involved. Mr. O’Brien is owed about two and a half years on a contract that pays him $10 million to $20 million a year.

Mr. O’Brien expressed hope in his statement that the issue could be resolved so “that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of, for a company that values our work.” But though the Fox network has made its potential interest in Mr. O’Brien public in comments this week, Mr. O’Brien said, “I currently have no other offer and honestly have no idea what happens next.”

There would be questions, too, about Mr. O’Brien’s potential at another network after the disappointment at “Tonight.”

Mr. O’Brien’s future could also be complicated by how his contract is settled. Even if NBC settles with him, it could enforce a clause that keeps him off television for a year or more.