Conan O’Brien was stung by NBC’s decision to downgrade him to after midnight, insiders close to the host said over the weekend.
While it’s still unclear whether O’Brien will accept the NBC proposal, it’s pretty clear the host – who only assumed the “Tonight Show” chair in June – is not happy about it.
“It’s radically unfair what happened to him,” one source said. “He turned down a massive offer six years ago with the promise of eventually getting the ‘Tonight Show.’ And then he never really got the ‘Tonight Show.'”
It was Fox’s overtures to O’Brien in 2004 – with a salary believed to be as much as three times what he was making at NBC – that led to the Peacock’s unusual five-year “Tonight Show” succession plan.
Under that setup, O’Brien agreed to remain on “Late Night,” but take over for Jay Leno on “Tonight” in 2009.
O’Brien did indeed receive the “Tonight Show” gig – but ultimately, he still wound up airing second on the night behind Leno’s 10 p.m. primetime strip.
Industry players characterized the new plan – half-hour Leno at 11:35, “Tonight” at 12:05 and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” at 1:05 – as just the latest quick-fix solution employed by NBC.
“The ‘Tonight Show’ is not the ‘Tonight Show’ at 12:05,” an insider said. “By definition, 12:05 is tomorrow.”
NBC said talks with O’Brien’s camp will resume on Monday, although nothing has been scheduled yet.
“I think Conan’s motivation will become more clear as time goes on, but what was important to me is that I gave Conan something that was very important to him, which was ‘The Tonight Show,'” said NBC Universal TV Entertainment chair Jeff Gaspin.
Also at the NBC portion of the TV Critics Assn. press tour, former NBC star Jerry Seinfeld –now exec producer of the Peacock’s “The Marriage Ref” – got into the fray.
Seinfeld, who was Leno’s first 10 p.m. guest, said he didn’t think O’Brien had reason to be upset.
“I don’t think anyone’s preventing people from watching Conan,” Seinfeld said. “I don’t think anyone has done anything to Conan. There are no rules in show business.”
Leno’s 10 p.m. play may have just delayed what may now be an inevitable fact: That between Leno and O’Brien, there may be only room for one at NBC — and Peacock execs have thrown their weight behind Leno.
“After 17 years of late night success they know what works, and now they’re trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” said one exec.
One sage pointed out that the Leno/O’Brien five-year plan was a very General Electric-style solution to the problem of trying to keep both hosts at the Peacock – but it’s now coming back to haunt the net, right when Comcast is poised to acquire a controlling stake in the net from GE.
Much of O’Brien’s decision will rely on his other options – and it’s still unclear whether he’ll be able to find a more attractive setup.
Cable would still mean a smaller audience, and no late-night talker has worked in syndication since Arsenio Hall (and even Hall’s show was ultimately hurt by the fact that syndie shows can easily be downgraded to worse time slots).
The most obvious alternative to NBC remains Fox, which at the very least was looking on Friday to play the role of spoiler in NBC’s attempts to keep Conan O’Brien.
As the Peacock and O’Brien continue to hammer out his future at the network, Fox is now sending not-so-subtle hints that it would be willing to launch a late-night franchise around the carrot-topped comedian.
“We’ve always been interested in late night and we’re always looking to bring great new talent to Fox,” a network source said. “While Conan would be a great fit for Fox, he’s still under contract with NBC, so we’ll just see how all of this plays out.”
(ABC, meanwhile, seemed to close the door on O’Brien: “With all due respect to Conan, we like the late night hand we are currently playing,” the Alphabet said in a statement.)
How serious Fox might be about luring O’Brien away remains to be seen. Some Fox insiders were earlier dismissing the idea, noting that Fox’s owned and affiliated stations do quite well in late night with off-net sitcoms.
Stations wouldn’t make nearly as much money by giving up that local time to clear a network talker — and the ratings declines experienced by “Tonight” under O’Brien (although much of that can be attributed to NBC’s woes, not O’Brien) wouldn’t help.
Fox has made rumblings through the years that it would like to get back into the late night game, having recently launched the Saturday night yakker “The Wanda Sykes Show.”
But the net — which first launched in late night, with 1986’s “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” — has been scared away from the daypart ever since 1993’s “Chevy Chase Show,” considered one of network TV’s biggest debacles of all time. (Its other foray into the time slot, the news/comedy hybrid “Wilton North Report,” was another disaster.)
Insiders confirm that under Fox’s deal with affiliates, it has the right to clear a late night talker.
The net wouldn’t do so without first consulting with stations, however. Fox may offer an attractive alternative to O’Brien, who would air at 11 p.m. on Fox — a full hour earlier than his best-case scenario now at NBC. What’s more, he’d be going from the last-place network to the first-place web among adults 18-49.
There’s also the issue of O’Brien’s contract with NBC, and how tough it might be to negotiate an exit.
Quipped O’Brien on Friday’s “Tonight Show”: “I do have to let you know that until this whole thing is sorted out NBC lawyers have asked me to refer to this program as ‘The Sometime-at-Night Show With Some White Guy’.”