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Conan Rejects NBC's Late-Night Plan

Conan O'Brien rejected NBC's plan to move The Tonight Show to 12:05 a.m. in order to make room for Jay Leno, whose low-rated primetime strip will end when NBC begins broadcasting the Vancouver Winter Olympics on Feb. 12.

In a sharply worded statement released Jan. 12 to media outlets (scroll down to read the full text of the statement), O'Brien said that he believed moving The Tonight Show to 12:05 a.m. where it has aired for 60 years, would "seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting."

NBC declined comment.

O'Brien added that the plan would negatively impact Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, which would be shunted to 1:05 a.m.

"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," wrote O'Brien. "That would hurt the other NBC franchise that I love, and it would be unfair to Jimmy."

O'Brien did not state outright that he would refuse to host The Tonight Show at 12:05 a.m., but his missive effectively fires a broadside at his employer and offers a glimpse at what could be more rancor to come as O'Brien and the network negotiate a financial settlement over O'Brien's exit.

NBC insiders chalked up O'Brien's statement as an attempt to negotiate in the press. Representatives for O'Brien did not respond to calls for further comment.

During a Q&A session at the Television Critics Association confab Jan. 10, NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin described Leno, O'Brien and Fallon as "incredibly gracious and professional" during initial meetings about the proposed late-night shake-up. 

How much leverage O'Brien has is debatable. According to sources with knowledge of his NBC contract, there is no time-slot stipulation. The payout to O'Brien if he's let go calls for NBC to pay him roughly $25 million over two years. But the network could keep O'Brien from appearing on a competing network for two years, say sources.

Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly publicly expressed support for O'Brien and did not rule out mounting a late-night franchise around him. But Reilly admitted that it would present challenges for the network and its affiliates, which have syndicated contracts in place in late-night.

Privately, Fox affiliates have been unenthusiastic about a late-night franchise. Both the syndicated and local news options offer stations better ad inventory than a network show, say the affiliates, and have made for an often lucrative time slot. "We have syndication agreements locked down," says one GM based in the south. "I'm not sure how you move those out of the way."

On The Tonight Show Tuesday night, O'Brien continued to skewer the network.

"Welcome to NBC, where our new slogan is 'no longer just screwing up primetime,'" he said during his monologue.

O'Brien's full statement to the press follows:

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.