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Video: O’Brien looks set to quit ‘Tonight Show’

  1. Closed captioning of: O’Brien looks set to quit ‘Tonight Show’

    >>> all right, al, thanks very much. a resounding no. that's what conan o'brien is telling nbc about the plan to move "the tonight show " back to 12:05 to make room for a half hour with jay leno . nbc 's lee cowan's in los angeles with the latest on this. lee, good morning to you.

    >> reporter: good morning, matt. yeah, it's no secret that late night has always been a battlefield, but it's turning into a civil war here at nbc with conan o'brien's very funny but still firm statement yesterday saying that if, in fact, jay leno gets his old time slot back, conan o'brien will leave "the tonight show " for good. nbc executives may have figured that they had it coming, but conan o'brien was for the most part gentle, pretty classy, in fact.

    >> hello there. my name is conan o'brien, and i may soon be available for children's parties, so let me know .

    >> reporter: the world was watching to see just how the comedian would react after issuing a statement saying that he could no longer participate in what he believed was "the tonight show 's" destruction.

    >> for nbc , in the --

    >> stop saying nbc ! i'm trying to have a pleasant evening.

    >> reporter: what viewers tuned into last night was more than just an awkward what do we do now show. if nbc can't figure it out, it may well be the beginning of the end of an american tradition.

    >> i've been giving this situation a lot of thought. you know, this is a true story -- when i was a little boy , i remember watching "the tonight show with johnny carson " and thinking some day i'm going to host that show for seven months.

    >> reporter: "the tonight show " has been america's night light for almost 60 years, a time slot nbc now wants to push back until after midnight.

    >> welcome to nbc , where our new slogan is "no longer just screwing up prime time ," huh?

    >> reporter: the network is doing it to make room for "the tonight show 's" former host, jay leno , whose prime time show the network canceled as of february 12th .

    >> that is the exact date the mayan calendar predicted we would go off the air.

    >> really?

    >> reporter: but in conan 's statement, humorously addressed to the people of earth, conan said 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 ."

    >> nbc has had this problem. they create late-night stars better than anybody, but then when they do, they only have one prime show.

    >> reporter: critics point out it was similar with david letterman , who right now is tops in the ratings over at cbs and is as giddy as a school boy spoofing his former competitor.

    >> there are two types of talk show hosts, jay leno and those who have been victimized by jay leno .

    >> reporter: the network is still in negotiations, it says, both jay leno and conan o'brien but will not comment specifically on conan 's threat to leave. now, matt, conan also said that he does not have any other offers in hand, despite those rumors that he had been talking to fox, but he did say he wants to try to get this all over with as quickly as possible so that, in his words, he and his team can get on with doing a show for a company that values its work. matt?

    >> all right, lee cowan on this story for us. lee, thank you very much. "the new york times" media correspondent bill carter broke the story about conan 's resignation letter, if you want to call it that. bill, good morning to you.

    >> good morning, matt.

    >> so, you've been following this story, i know, very closely. now you read this letter. what jumps out from the letter to you?

    >> well, it's obviously a very well composed letter by a guy who, you know, is a great writer, but he also is conveying, i think, a lot of the pain and hurt he feels that he didn't get a chance to do something he'd dreamt about, and he clearly wants to do something about it.

    >> but what also must jump out to you, bill, is the language he's chosen, because behind the words is a legal question, isn't it? i mean, basically --

    >> yes.

    >> there's a contract in place here, and i know a little something about these kinds of contracts, and probably, there's a paragraph that says nbc 's guaranteeing to employ conan o'brien as the host of "the tonight show " for a period of time, and now conan is questioning the definition of "the tonight show ," isn't he?

    >> yeah, he is, because this whole matter has now revolved around the fact that he was promised that he would host "the tonight show " and they're still going to call it "the tonight show " even though they're moving it to 12:05 , and in his contract, he didn't have a time period guarantee, which many of these late-night contracts do. which means that nbc is saying we're not breaching your contract as long as we're saying it's "the tonight show ," and of course, conan feels like he's not doing the job he was promised, which would be a job right after the late, local news. after all, "the tonight show 's" been there for 60 years.

    >> right. and behind that question, of course, bill, is a lot of money. because if, in fact, nbc has or does breach the contract, there's a big cash payout.

    >> yes. conan would be owed upwards of $40 million if he had to be paid out his entire amount of money. i think he was careful. he didn't resign. he didn't resign at all in this. if he resigned, it would be obviously easy for nbc to say, okay, that's it, we don't have to pay you anything. he's saying, whatever you're going to do in this plan, i'm not going to agree to. i think it just sets up a negotiation now. clearly, i think both sides are going to come together and come to a settlement that does pay conan a certain amount of money but gives him an opportunity, which i think is what he really wants, to move on and do something else somewhere else .

    >> so, look into your crystal ball for me and tell me, on february 15th , what is nbc 's late-night lineup going to look like?

    >> "the tonight show " starring jay leno is back again. it's called "the tonight show ," jay's back as an hour-long format and jimmy fallon is in late night as he has been, and that's the new nbc lineup, jay leno into jimmy fallon and conan o'brien is off for i think a pretty sustained period of time, because nbc will be able to bench him for a while before he's even able to take another job.

    >> right. and real, real quickly, the fallout for nbc executives who are finding themselves, i guess, punch lines , if you will?

    >> well, you know, this has been an ongoing saga. they've tried to solve this problem now for five years, and it's just not a solvable problem. you've got one chair and two guys revolving around it and they can't sit in it. now, if someone wants to say, well, you blew it because you couldn't solve the problem, it really goes back five years. they kept it together for five years. now comes the day of reckoning, and it didn't work out as they planned.

    >> bill carter from "the new york times." bill, thanks for your time this morning. i appreciate it.

    >> great to be with you, matt.

    >>> up next, bad news for

updated 1/13/2010 11:14:11 AM ET 2010-01-13T16:14:11

“Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien used his best material for his statement that said he wouldn’t play ball with NBC’s plan for him to make room for Jay Leno to come back to late night.

By the time O’Brien arrived on stage Tuesday night for his “Tonight Show” monologue, his remarks about the scheduling debacle took the form of a few swipes at NBC.

“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,”’ cracked O’Brien, who took over “Tonight” from Leno last June.

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

Leno, of course, has been starring weeknights at 10 p.m. EST in a little-watched show that NBC announced earlier this week will be canceled.

“As I’m sure you know,” Leno told viewers Tuesday in his own monologue, “NBC announced they are pulling the plug on this show Feb. 12. Here’s the amazing part: That is the exact date that the Mayan calendar predicted we would go off the air.”

While Leno’s return to 11:35 p.m. EST seemed definite, O’Brien’s future with the network was anything but clear-cut, after he released his statement earlier in the day that abruptly derailed NBC’s rush to put its late-night house in order.

O’Brien said shifting “Tonight” to 12:05 a.m. will “seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting,” and he expressed disappointment that NBC had given him less than a year to establish himself as host at 11:35 p.m.

Slideshow: Night people O’Brien is in line to make approximately $30 million from NBC if he is replaced on “The Tonight Show” or if the show is canceled, said a source close to the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak about it publicly. However, the source said the sum would not apply just for moving O’Brien to a later time slot.

O’Brien said he doesn’t have an offer in hand from another network. Fox, which lacks a network late-night show, has expressed its appreciation for him but said this week that no negotiations have been held.

In his statement, wryly addressed to “People of Earth,” the comic knocked his network’s prime-time ratings woes, which stem in part from the poor performance of Leno’s new prime-time show. “The Jay Leno Show” debuted in the fall after Leno surrendered his 17-year stake in the “Tonight” last spring to O’Brien.

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“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,” O’Brien said.

“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.

Growing up watching “Tonight” host Johnny Carson and getting the chance to “one day sit in that chair has meant everything to me,” and was an opportunity he worked long and hard to obtain, O’Brien said.

Show has rich history
“Tonight” has long been the dominant late-night program on television, with O’Brien following in a line of hosts that included Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Leno. For many of those years, an appearance on “Tonight,” particularly for comics, could make or break a career.

NBC wants to move Leno out of prime-time and to the 11:35 p.m. slot with a half-hour show, bumping “Tonight” to 12:05 a.m. — the latest it’s ever regularly aired. The network was under pressure to make a change from its affiliate stations, who found Leno’s show an inadequate ratings lead-in for their lucrative local newscasts.

Online, many took to O’Brien’s defense and applauded the host’s stand against NBC. “Team Conan” was one of the most popular Twitter topics Tuesday afternoon, as young viewers pledged their allegiance to O’Brien.

Video: Conan: I won't follow Leno An O’Brien portrait also circulated as a badge of support. Referring to the “Tonight” show host’s playful nickname, it read, “I’m with Coco,” and featured a black-and-white picture of a regal-looking O’Brien standing in front of an American flag. The only color: his shock of orange hair.

It doesn’t make sense for NBC to try and hold him to a contract, said John Rash, a media analyst for the Chicago advertising firm Campbell & Mithun.

“An unhappy comedian is not a good premise for a program,” Rash said.

Jody Simon, an entertainment lawyer with Peter Rubin & Simon, said it’s very likely that O’Brien and NBC will reach some sort of settlement that might require him to refrain from working at another late-night show for a certain time.

He expected O’Brien will not boycott his show, despite the expressed desire to quit.

“Until this is settled, I would be surprised if he said he wasn’t going to show up for work,” Simon said. “It would be unprofessional and would expose him to liability.”

The late-night shuffle has played out amid wide speculation that O’Brien might bolt for Fox. And the network’s top entertainment executive, Kevin Reilly, said on Monday, “I love Conan personally and professionally.”

Fox has had trouble launching late-night shows in the past, with Chevy Chase and Joan Rivers as notable failures. O’Brien offers the advantage of being a proven performer with a team experienced in putting on a show.

“Certainly Conan has a loyal audience and he’s been able to effectively position himself as a victim of NBC’s schedule shuffle,” said Rash, who added that the tone of O’Brien’s show seems to fit Fox’s brand better than it does NBC’s.

ABC’s top entertainment executive, Stephen McPherson, said his network had no interest in O’Brien. ABC would have sought Leno if he hit the open market, but its executives believe that O’Brien’s show is so close in tone to Letterman’s that it wouldn’t be good competition.

Fox declined comment Tuesday on O’Brien’s statement, but it is taking action that would indicate the network is seriously considering bringing him to late-night, a period now largely filled by a variety of syndicated fare that includes network reruns.

Fox is asking some of its stations to study and report back on how much money is made with current late-night programming, according to a person familiar with the request. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to publicly discuss the request.

The syndication agreements that are in place are a costly sticking point if Fox wants to put in a late-night show across the network, the person said.

It might not be easy for affiliate stations to break profitable syndication agreements, said analyst Rash.

Staying at the top
NBC announced the “Tonight Show” succession plan in 2004, well before Leno’s departure, to try to avoid the Leno-David Letterman battle that ensued when Carson retired. (On his CBS “Late Show” Tuesday, Letterman joked that he received a call from NBC with the message, “Look, look, we still don’t want you back.’ ”) But it didn’t count on Leno remaining atop the late-night ratings when he was pushed out of “Tonight.”

To keep Leno from becoming a late-night competitor to O’Brien at another network, NBC offered him the daily 10 p.m. EST prime-time series. The network also saw it as an opportunity for cost-cutting, with a talk show considerably cheaper to produce than the scripted dramas that typically fill the final hour of prime-time.

“Tonight” with O’Brien is averaging 2.5 million nightly viewers, compared with 4.2 for Letterman’s “Late Show,” according to Nielsen figures. And the younger audience that O’Brien was expected to woo has been largely unimpressed; O’Brien and Letterman tie among advertiser-favored viewers ages 18 to 49.

Slideshow: Jay Leno, 'Tonight' and beyond Leno was drawing around 5 million viewers to “Tonight,” about the same number now watching his new show.

O’Brien said he hoped that he and NBC could resolve the issue quickly so he could do a show of which he and his crew could be proud — “for a company that values our work” — raising the possibility he might go to another network.

NBC declined comment Tuesday, adding that O’Brien was scheduled to do his show Tuesday night. Leno also declined comment.

For O’Brien, it’s been a stark contrast to early in his career, when he was an unknown replacing David Letterman in the 12:30 a.m. slot. He suffered brutal reviews, tough ratings and was working on a week-to-week contract. But NBC’s management then stuck with him, and he blossomed into a proven performer.

The network had been counting on O’Brien’s cooperation, and wanted an answer quickly, so it could get the revamped schedule ready to begin airing after NBC broadcasts the Winter Olympics, which will dominate NBC’s schedule from Feb. 12-28.

O’Brien noted in his statement that he’d received sympathy calls and added that no one should feel sorry for him because he’s been “absurdly lucky” to do what he loves most in a world with real problems.

He ended the statement with a punch line: “Have a great day and, for the record, I am truly sorry about my hair; it’s always been that way.”

Bill Lawrence, executive producer of ABC’s “Scrubs” and “Cougar Town,” said he was impressed by O’Brien’s letter.

“I’m sure it’s going to lead to good things for him,” he said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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