Conan O'Brien opposes plan to push program back

FILE - In this July 22, 2006 file photo, Conan O'Brien listens to a question as he talks about the show at the Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour in Pasadena, Calif.
FILE - In this July 22, 2006 file photo, Conan O'Brien listens to a question as he talks about the show at the Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour in Pasadena, Calif. AP Photo

"The Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien said today he strongly opposes a proposal to push the program back by 30 minutes to accommodate a Jay Leno show, insisting it would "seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting."

In a statement released through his publicist, O'Brien said he hopes to reach a resolution with NBC, but said he "cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its ('The Tonight Show's') destruction."

"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."

A spokeswoman for NBC said the network officials had no comment on O'Brien's statement.

NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin said Sunday that the network plans to drop "The Jay Leno Show" from its prime-time lineup next month following complaints from its affiliates that it damaged the ratings of its late-night newscasts.

Gaspin said he has proposed that a half-hour version of the Leno show air at 11:35 p.m., followed by "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" at 12:05 a.m. and "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" at 1:05 a.m., but agreements have not been reached.

"I hope and expect that before the Olympics begin we will have everything in place," Gaspin said during NBC's portion of the Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour in Pasadena.

The Winter Olympics begin Feb. 12. "The Jay Leno Show" will air in prime time for the final time Feb. 11.

In O'Brien's statement -- which he addressed to "People of Earth" -- the host said pushing his program to 12:05 a.m. would drastically change what has long been a staple of late-night television.

"`The Tonight Show' at 12:05 simply isn't the 'Tonight Show,'" he said. "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," O'Brien said. "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."

Gaspin said that while ratings for Leno's 10 p.m. show were "at acceptable levels for the network, it did not meet our affiliates' needs and we realized we had to make a change."

"In November, the affiliates started to call saying, 'Wow, our local news is being impacted more than we expected,'" Gaspin said.

Gaspin said he told the executives representing the affiliate stations the decline may have been the result of viewers "adjusting to a new schedule, let's give it some time."

"They gave us through November," Gaspin said. "At the end of November, especially those that had People Meters called up and said, `You know what? It's not getting much better for us. In some cases, we had a No. 1 news and now we're No. 3. In other cases, they just lost a larger percentage than they thought they would."

Discussions continued with affiliates in an attempt to persuade them to join the network in judging the ratings for Leno on a 52-week basis, when the show would often compete with drama reruns, Gaspin said.

Despite higher ratings in December against reruns, complaints from affiliates grew, especially from those who were just getting the November ratings figures, Gaspin said.

"Towards the middle of December, they made it clear they would be more vocal about their displeasure," Gaspin said. "Then they started to talk about the possibility of preemption."

"The Jay Leno Show" was a bet by NBC that 46 weeks of prime-time original comedy programming would help its yearly bottom line more than scripted dramas.

Even with lower ratings -- and lower accompanying advertising rates -- NBC's expectation was that it would generate more profits with "The Jay Leno Show" than the scripted dramas it replaced, because the cost to produce the show was far lower.

"The Jay Leno Show," which premiered Sept. 14, was the first time a major broadcast network ran a series in prime time five nights a week since "Captain Video and His Video Rangers" on the DuMont Television Network in the early 1950s.

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Conan O'Brien released the following 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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