Founder / Editor


Associate Editor


Assistant Editor











NEWS FLASH: Conan Refuses NBC's Post-Midnight "Tonight Show" Offer
January 12, 2010  | By David Bianculli


Bill Carter of the New York Times, who wrote the authoritative Late Shift book about the previous late-night TV upheaval, has just written the latest chapter of an obvious sequel: Conan O'Brien has rejected NBC's offer to continue to host The Tonight Show, but in a 12:05 a.m. time slot...

Conan, rather than being quoted, provided his own marvelously written first-person explanation. It's his love of the history and legacy and importance of The Tonight Show -- the same motivating force that drew David Letterman to the same candle flame -- that makes him both refuse the offer and regret that NBC made it in the first place.

"Since 2004," O'Brien writes, "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."

O'Brien also says -- and I love this, because he's 100 percent correct:

"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."

You can read the entire Times story, with O'Brien's full statement, HERE.

O'Brien, by responding firmly and publicly, would seem to have given Jeff Zucker and company a Sophie's Choice -- or, in this case, a Leno's Choice. The integral history of The Tonight Show will be retained either way, by keeping it at 11:35. Either NBC will keep The Tonight Show as is, with O'Brien at 11:35, or say sayonara to O'Brien, and give Leno not only the 11:35 slot as promised, but also his old show title back.

And since NBC has promised Leno the 11:35 time slot already, NBC may not have any choice left to make. If Leno's move to 11:35 is contractual rather than theoretical, then O'Brien is quitting, and NBC's late-night lineup is a done deal: Leno, then Fallon, and maybe (but maybe not) they even renew Carson Daly's show.

It must have been a tough decision for Conan, but it was the right one. NBC, by moving Jay from late-night to prime-time and then back again, has shafted and betrayed O'Brien and his Tonight Show not once, but twice.

But the cold truth of the matter was, Conan's Tonight Show had lost its Leno-audience-level advantage long before Leno's prime-time series even began, and had surrendered the lead to Letterman at CBS. As Conan writes, he didn't get much time or support from NBC -- but one reading of the ratings is that no matter how much time he was given, he was unlikely to have regained the ratings supremacy The Tonight Show enjoyed for so many decades.

Freed from NBC, O'Brien can now reinvent himself, take his time, and call his next shot. Unless NBC reverses its Leno decision, this is a done deal, and Jay Leno will return as the next host of The Tonight Show. But he'll be returning not only as a prime-time failure, but as the guy who clearly pushed his colleague Conan O'Brien out of a job.

And what, someone at NBC should start contemplating, might be the long-term ratings fallout from that?




Jon Delfin said:

And what of the writers, musicians and other staff people who uprooted themselves to move to California with O'Brien? What becomes of them?

Comment posted on January 12, 2010 4:11 PM

Eileen said:

Good for Conan. Someone is finally showing some class at NBC. He'll definitely land on his feet, but I don't think it will bode well for Leno.

First of all, NBC/Leno enraged viewers when all the drama shows got pushed back to 9 pm; even L&O SVU was complaining of lost viewership due to the fact everyone was so used to tuning in at 10 pm.

On Fridays I always played the "hurry up" game -- L&O at 8 pm(!!) followed by Dateline at 9 pm(!!) in order to accommodate Leno. Not good for viewers at all...

I'm beginning to think NBC & Leno truly deserve each other.

Comment posted on January 12, 2010 4:26 PM

Eric Mink said:

Read Conan's full statement carefully: Not once does he refer to Jay Leno by name. He mentions the "Jay Leno Show" as a title. He refers to "my predecessor." But to Jay Leno as a person? No. Conan mentions Johnny Carson. He mentions Jimmy Fallon. And he even pays tribute to David Letterman in referring to "Late Night" as the show "I inherited from David Letterman." You can almost see the flames rising off Conan's words, and he has any favorable personal feelings for Leno, this statement certainly hides them well.

Conan delivers his coup de grace by linking insertion of a half-hour "Jay Leno Show" at 11:35 with the "destruction" of the legacy of "The Tonight Show."

On that score, Conan's a little late. As I wrote -- presciently, I must say -- in 1998:


From a creative perspective, Leno's work has been second (or third) rate since he dropped full-time stand-up and took over "The Tonight Show" in 1992. And his prime time show gives train wrecks a bad name.

NBC apparently didn't think it mattered anymore if Leno bombing at 10 took down affiliate late-news ratings at 11. Turns out it does matter. Still. Notwithstanding all our fine time-shifting technology.

Comment posted on January 12, 2010 4:38 PM

Alan said:

This is the second person Jay Leno has elbowed aside for the "Tonight Show" throne. Maybe this will finally solidify for everyone else what Letterman fans have known for eighteen years: that Leno is ruthless when it comes to getting what he wants. "Nice guy," my ass.

Comment posted on January 12, 2010 4:43 PM

Dan Angelucci said:

"But the cold truth of the matter was, Conan's Tonight Show had lost its Leno-audience-level advantage long before Leno's prime-time series even began, and had surrendered the lead to Letterman at CBS."

Regarding this, you gotta figure that had Conan had the benefit of prime time shows at 10 o'clock as a lead in, he could have possibly done better. All he had was summer leftovers.

But the point about David Letterman still stands.

Comment posted on January 12, 2010 4:49 PM

MS said:

On a moral scale, I believe Jay Leno has behaved more contemptibly than the NBC execs. They were merely making poor business decisions; he is treating a fellow performer with utter disrespect. He can't need the money. If he can't bear to stop working, he can do a few hundred standup gigs a year or settle into a casino. After making a maudlin show of the children born to staffers during his tenure at the Tonight Show, he has shown no consideration for the current staff, many of whom dislocated their families across the country. I refused to watch the 10 pm show for what his selfishness did to the prime time schedule and will never watch the Tonight Show with Leno as host.

Comment posted on January 12, 2010 5:18 PM

Tausif Khan said:

While Conan might be the successor to Jay Leno and Johnny Carson, I believe this is in name only. Jon Stewart is the person who has been able to continue the legacy of Johnny Carson in terms of quality and as a person who people turn to for his take on current events.

Comment posted on January 12, 2010 6:31 PM

Kevan said:

So it's come to this. You've got to admire Conan for putting the legacy of the "Tonight Show" brand before his own.

That certainly can't be said of the network willing to bump its sixty-year-old institution to second bill.

Nor can it be said of the humbled heavyweight, adopting the same "I'm just a nice guy caught in the middle of all this" persona he used the last time he was involved in marring the program's reputation, almost two decades ago.

So what's next for Conan (and Andy, and Max for that matter)? A move to Fox seems to me a risk that could pan gold (if they can transfer the show mostly intact, as Letterman was able to do at CBS). But on the other hand, the second half of an 11pm Conan O'Brien show would be up against Dave AND Jay; an RC Cola in a Coke or Pepsi world. He'd also be in direct competition with the entire Daily Show/Colbert hour for the hip 18-25 audience.

Rather, maybe Conan should step back from the limelight for a while, maybe develop some other projects (like his ahead-of-its-time Adam West sitcom, "Lookwell!"). After delivering his well-written statement, Conan can exit Talk Show Wars Two (TSWII) with his head held high.

Of course, if he really wanted to stick it to NBC and Leno, he could always contribute material to the "Late Show," just like his hero Johnny Carson did for so many years.

Comment posted on January 12, 2010 7:13 PM

Gregg B said:

Does Jay Leno have any integrity at all? I know he has a history of hiding in closets so he can overhear company executives. I know he dumbed down The Tonight Show by showcasing morons and stupid sexual references in his monologues. I know he selfishly ruined the 10:00 hour by putting on a lazy show that showed absolutely no originality. But what happened to the "nice guy" Jay Leno that we had heard about. How can he possibly be so selfish that he would force out the Tonight Show which he hosted? That he would force out Conan from the job? How would he have liked it, if seven months into his Tonight Show when his ratings were hemorrhaging they had brought back Johnny Carson to host an 11:35 show? He has brought himself to a new low. How can anyone possibly respect him after the way he has selfishly acted in this situation? If he had any integrity he would walk away and let the new guard take over. But as I said he has no integrity. I hope he fails again miserably.

Comment posted on January 12, 2010 8:29 PM

Sally W. said:

I have to say - I'm pretty impressed by Conan O'Brien's statement: it's witty, persuasive, and graceful piece of writing. While it's still not clear what will happen next (as far as I can tell anyway; I'm no prognosticator), I like that Conan's not giving up so easily.

I hope you don't mind my passing this along, but I thought Time's James Poniewozik's analysis/translation of Conan's statement was pretty nifty too:


(p.s. - a little hello to Eric Mink - your comment is a great highlight on Conan's statement. I remembered reading your reviews in the Daily News along with David Bianculli's - you two made the tv section of the Daily News worthwhile!)

[I, too, would like to throw out a little hello to Eric. I'm trying to entice him to team up again and join our stable of writers. Maybe your warm and unsolicited recognition will help. -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 13, 2010 1:16 AM

Rich said:

GO Conan! - I remember the murmurs and talk (and jokes) about Conan when he inherited Letterman's time-slot. He was fearless and slowly built a rep & audience. He was a total 'Nobody' (to most people) and he did what Magic Johnson, Chevy Chase, Rick Dees, Pat Sajak, and Jon Stewart (yes, he had a late show on Fox in the early 90's) couldn't - He made memorable television out of 'nothing'. The only person who lasted since is Kimmel (you gotta credit his chops from "The Man Show" and ABC giving him a long leash).

I want Conan to go to Fox and eliminate BOTH Letterman & Leno, or at least make them sweat. I think Conan will be on fire and take NO prisoners at Fox- Plus, Leno's probably made a few enemies who would love to support Conan. Have you ever heard anything bad about Conan?

LENO?..I said this in May- He's a Skunk! I could write an entire blog about how many bits he's lifted from Howard Stern. I hope he comes back to 11:35 pm and he and NBC can blame each other. NO ONE thought this was a good idea. I want Jay punished! I want NBC Punished! You can NOT keep shafting the advertisers, affiliates, audiences, and Other Talent and expect everyone to 'Be Cool'. Let's talk PUNISHMENT! Stock holders?, affiliates? Someone's gotta rub NBC's nose in this - It's just bad business. They should END "The Tonight Show" franchise & start over if they want Jay so bad.

I'm disgusted and repulsed that NBC has let this 'fire' burn this far out of control.

[But how do you REALLY feel? -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 13, 2010 1:22 AM

Hoppy said:

I'm confused. Everyone is kicking the crap out of Leno but did he demand his show be moved back to the 11:30 half hour? If so, then keep kicking. But I don't recall seeing that anywhere. I'm pretty sure the crap kicking belongs pretty much to NBC execs.

And maybe it's me, but I think the Conan audience no longer cares about broadcast TV. We old TV guys keep wanting to compare numbers from 10, 20, 30 years ago. Ain't ever going to happen again. There's a new demo in town and their appointments aren't with traditional broadcast television.

Comment posted on January 13, 2010 9:36 AM

Megan said:

I'm so glad this is how Conan responded. I would have been really disappointed if he just rolled over and allowed Leno to make decisions about his life for him. I've been a fan of his for years. I hope he gets a better gig.

Comment posted on January 13, 2010 9:39 AM

Curtis said:

"People of Earth."

Now that's comedy.

Comment posted on January 13, 2010 10:26 AM

Eric Mink said:

RE: Leno's conduct

I wonder if Jay's deal with NBC included a clause requiring his reinstatement at 11:35 -- or a giant penalty payment -- if the 10 p.m. show were cancelled before some specified date. If so, then he shares culpability for the cockamamie 30-minutes-of-Jay idea that Conan so admirably refused to go along with. I can only speculate, but it's worth remembering that Jay had enough muscle to get five hours of NBC prime time a week in exchange for leaving late-night relatively quietly and not going to a competitor. It would NOT be like him to commando at 10, i.e. without contractual protection.

(By the way, a little thanks to the little hello from Sally W. above. Dave and I and our TV department colleagues at The News had a lot of fun, did good work and kicked serious competitive a** in a tough New York media market for close to 10 years. It's gratifying to know you followed, valued and remembered what we did -- and what Dave's STILL doing here!)

Comment posted on January 13, 2010 11:03 AM

jesse said:

I for one hope this whole episode proves the value of time positioning and broadcast television. I think Conan made a great point in that regardless of DVRs and other technologies, the time your program appears means something. Also, I hope Conan's statement shows that broadcast television still has appeal. I'm tired of hearing that broadcast television is a broken model and that free television will soon be history. I'm not buying it (zing!). As Conan said, he turned down more lucrative contracts to stay on broadcast television and keep the 'tonight show' brand because both have status. Long live free television!

Comment posted on January 13, 2010 11:15 AM

Peter said:

My concern has been for Fallon and Daly. For my money they are far more relevant than Leno or Conan. Both are experimenting with the form and tone of a Late night show, and both are letting their own passions lead their shows instead of the format. Fallon geeking out on technology and Daly geeking out on music (and LA) is far more interesting to watch than monologues and skits.

Comment posted on January 13, 2010 9:44 PM

kc said:

I think it's interesting how nobody's talking much about how successful (ratings-wise) the Tonight Show is really likely to be if Jay takes over again. It seems to me one lesson to be learned from the failure of the prime time show is that Leno himself apparently doesn't have a very faithful audience and is not such a draw that he can overcome problems from poor scheduling or bad production values. No doubt this whole fiasco, fairly or not, has tarnished his brand, as well. I can't imagine he's quite as safe a choice for the Tonight Show as he was before all of this.

Remember that Leno was beaten by Letterman on CBS for about two years before he regained and kept the lead for that time slot in 1995. All this in the must-see-TV era of the 90s. It's ridiculous to me that NBC isn't giving Conan at least that much time to pull it together.

Comment posted on January 14, 2010 6:37 AM

Alex said:

What I find most fascinating about this whole imbroglio are two things that I have yet to read in any of the media or blogs to date:

1. Conan, for all his comedy genius and respect for the Tonight Show franchise, had some serious flaws as a host.

2. Jay just wants to be liked.

I'll start with #1; Conan is a terrible interviewer. His comedy bits, on the other hand, are almost always spot-on. Unfortunately, he doesn't know when to shut it off when interviewing his guests. Here, he really needs to learn some lessons from Letterman.

Dave knows how to move a conversation along without constantly referring back to his notes. He also knows when to insert a joke or comment to break the pace of the interview. Too often, he takes that joke and doesn't just break the pace of the interview but breaks the entire interview. It often devolves into Conan mugging for the camera while the guest sits there, unable to recapture their moment.

It's a shame, really, because he does everything else so well. The "Conando" bits bring me straight back to the Johnny bits of yore. The band, with Max Weinberg at the helm, hearkens back to the crack Tonight Show Orchestra -- no more slouching Kevin Eubanks with his sneakers, backwards Kangol and loose, funky band. No, the band is now all in suits, playing tight and hitting the songs, just like Doc would back in the day.

Finally, just look at Conan's set. It screams "Johnny Lived/Lives Here". The layout and the level of design seems to invite comparisons to Johnny, Jack and Steve. Leno, on the other hand, used his new set to exorcise Johnny from The Tonight Show altogether. Perhaps it's just as well, because I've long held that Leno killed the show.

On to #2: Leno never wanted to give up The Tonight Show -- but he also didn't want to be the guy who forced the then-hot Conan to another network back in '04 and threaten his perch as The Most Liked Guy In Late Night. No, he isn't behind the scenes forcing these changes. He's smart enough to know that, if push comes to shove, the brainless hacks in the NBC head office will choose him over Conan. Conan's ratings suck right now, and the suits can't see beyond their noses to the future, so they'll say "Jay's a winner at 11:35" and put him back there. If they didn't, he'd just go to another network and beat them at the ratings there. In short, the execs had to take the known winner (Leno) over the current loser (Conan). He didn't have to do a thing to make it happen.

Leno hasn't done anything immoral but, perhaps, even more damning is the fact that it's totally amoral. He is allowing others to make the choices to ruin other people's careers in his stead.

It doesn't hurt that Jay was sharp enough to write his contract so NBC didn't have any outs, either.

As brilliant as Conan's letter is, I think his comparison from the other night of NBC being a pimp and Jay, Conan, Jimmy & Carson as the hos is more apt. NBC is thinking only about the money they can make and treating their employees not as people but simply as flesh that can be turned out for another dollar.

[Excellent series of observations. None of it looks good for Conan, but that's where we're at right now anyway. -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 15, 2010 5:53 PM
Leave a Comment: (No HTML, 1000 chars max)
 Name (required)
 Email (required) (will not be published)
Type in the verification word shown on the image.