O'Brien mulls 'Tonight Show' future; NBC may go with guest hosts

Conan O’Brien to NBC: Drop dead.

O’Brien broke his silence on Tuesday with a lengthy statement that left no doubt about his unhappiness over NBC’s plan to move “The Tonight Show” to 12:05 a.m. — declaring he could not “participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction.” But the host did leave doubts about his next move given NBC’s stated determination to move the show.

Insiders said O’Brien had no intention of resigning and would continue to show up for work and do his show. Biz observers said that NBC and O’Brien now appear to be in a game of chicken, with NBC trying to force O’Brien to quit, while O’Brien appears to be looking to force the network to fire him if it proceeds with the 12:05 move. How O’Brien’s contract is settled out is likely to vary greatly depending on whether he quits or is let go.

O’Brien’s release of the statement adds another bizarre chapter to an extraordinary public drama that has unfolded during the past six days, ever since word surfaced of NBC’s plans to reroute the failing “Jay Leno Show” from its nightly 10 p.m. berth to back to his old 11:35 p.m. time-slot, albeit in a half-hour format.

“For 60 years the ‘Tonight Show’ has aired immediately following the late local news,” O’Brien wrote in the statement addressed tongue-in-cheek to “people of Earth.””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.'”

That assertion raised speculation that the show could wind up at the center of a legal battle with NBC.

While execs may argue that NBC hasn’t breached O’Brien’s contract — he is, in their mind, still the host of the “Tonight Show,” just at a different time — O’Brien will likely argue that with former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno back at 11:35, it’s a hollow title.

Such a semantic argument could make a huge difference as NBC and O’Brien potentially head into negotiations. The specifics of O’Brien’s contract with NBC have been heavily speculated upon, but there’s no definitive clarification on how easy it will be for the host to exit NBC.

So far, insiders close to the situation said no talks have been scheduled to hammer out O’Brien’s future at the network.

NBC had no comment on the O’Brien statement. O’Brien opened Tuesday’s edition of “The Tonight Show” with pointed quips about his precarious situation.

“Welcome to NBC. Where our new slogan is, ‘No longer just screwing up prime-time,'” he said. “When I was a little boy, I remember watching ‘The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson’ and thinking ‘Someday, I’m going to host that show for seven months.'”

Insiders stressed that O’Brien’s decision to release the written statement earlier in the day was all about the host addressing his feelings on the NBC proposal. The host was said to be anxious to get his thoughts in the open before things progressed much further.

There is a deadline, after all, for NBC to figure out its latenight setup: NBC Universal TV Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin told reporters Sunday that he expected a resolution by Feb. 12 — when Leno’s 10 p.m. show ends and the Winter Olympics begins.

O’Brien, who wrote the statement himself on Monday night, stopped short of quitting the Peacock. But he made it pretty clear that he wouldn’t accept a proposal that would remove him as host of an 11:35 “Tonight Show.”

That means O’Brien is prepared to exit the network without a backup plan in place, despite rampant rumors that his reps are negotiating to move his show to Fox.

“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,” 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.”

It’s looking less likely that another option could be possible. Leno has already agreed to move back to 11:35, and NBC has already committed to the switch.

It’s clear it’s not a money issue for O’Brien, who expressed his disappointment at not being given time to grow into the “Tonight Show” job.

“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,” he said. “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 primetime schedule,” he wrote. “Building a lasting audience at 11:30 is impossible without both.”

In crafting the Leno/O’Brien compromise, Gaspin admitted Sunday that the solution wasn’t perfect and wasn’t to either Leno’s or O’Brien’s satisfaction. Indeed, NBC execs privately wondered whether they had in the process damaged all three brands: Leno, O’Brien and “The Tonight Show.”

Peacock insiders said that they had considered making a sort of “Sophie’s Choice” in choosing between Leno and O’Brien. And that may be what they did anyway, in a roundabout way.

Given Leno’s perf at 11:35 vs. O’Brien’s, the network apparently made the strategic decision to go with the former incumbent. O’Brien in his statement also expressed disappointment that he wasn’t given much time, or much of a primetime lead-in, to prove himself in the “Tonight Show” chair.

Here’s the complete 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.

Yours,

Conan

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