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Conan O'Brien says a public 'Thanks, but no thanks' to a Tonight Show that would, technically speaking, start tomorrow.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
Conan O'Brien has just issued a statement in which he says, among other things, that he is not willing to go along with NBC's scheme to push "The Tonight Show" back to 12:05 AM. The network had hoped O'Brien would sign off on that plan, which would make way for Jay Leno's move back to late-night, in a half-hour show that would air at 11:35, after the local news.
So what now?
Well, now, it's really up to NBC. O'Brien's statement lays out in some detail his reasons for not agreeing to the plan, which include:
(1) his frustration that he wasn't supported at 11:35 with either adequate time to build his audience or adequate support from the prime-time schedule (in this, he is placing blame for the situation at least in part on Leno's show at 10)
(2) the fact that he doesn't think you move a franchise as old as The Tonight Show a half-hour later just because you have a short-term scheduling problem
(3) he's not crazy about bumping Jimmy Fallon from 12:35 to 1:05, either.
One of the most telling lines is this one: "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."
In other words, "I haven't been treated fairly."
He goes on to say that he has "no other offer" from other networks at this point, and says he still hopes to be able to work it out with NBC. (Not that it seems very likely.)
But still: The ball is in NBC's court now. Without having seen Conan's contract, it's very hard to know precisely what all the considerations are going to be. But if he's not going to go along by mutual agreement so that NBC can keep everybody, then the suits are going to have to explicitly choose between him and Leno — with most of us assuming, based on the fact that they've even come up with this plan in the first place, that they will choose Leno.
By announcing that he's rejecting this deal, O'Brien obviously makes himself available for other discussions. Fox executives here at the TCA press tour were careful to say yesterday that they weren't having serious talks with O'Brien until he'd decided what to do about NBC's proposal.
But as noted, O'Brien is also putting NBC squarely in the hot seat: They're going to have to make this call, and then be responsible for it. If they're going to boot him and give the show back to Leno, then they're going to have to do it straightforwardly. Right now, he has a job, and he's taking the position that he's still showing up for work. If that's going to change, it's going to be against his will, not with his consent; he's not going to step aside to make it smoother for the network.
Much of Conan's statement is an appeal to fairness. As he sees it, NBC is basically asking him to fall on his sword in order to fix a problem that he didn't create. And he's declining.
One guy this is bad news for? Jay Leno. If Leno had hoped that he could return to 11:35 in peace, that's not going to happen. If he goes back to his old spot, it's going to be because Conan was forced out, and Conan isn't going to go along with the story being told any other way.
Not exactly the way a talk-show host wants to be welcomed back to America's living rooms.