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Conan O'Brien's conundrum

In the grand scheme of things, figuring out whether to stay in a job that pays north of $15 million a year or fighting for some sort of buyout that would also be in the millions -- if not multimillions -- is something of a luxury problem. But those are basically the options facing NBC's Conan O'Brien, who is being told "The Tonight Show" is going to move from 11:35 p.m. to 12:05 a.m. to make room for Jay Leno's return to late night.

For all the talk out of Fox that it loves O'Brien  and would be willing to chat with him, the odds of something really happening seem long. Even if Fox has some sort of tacit agreement to explore getting back into late night, actually getting the time slots from its stations will be no small task. Fox's affiliates show reruns in the 11 p.m. time slot, which is ideally where Fox would want to put O'Brien. Those reruns make a lot of money for the stations, who have seen their bottom lines hit by a weak economy and audience fragmentation. 

While Fox could put Conan at 11:30 p.m., which might be a little more acceptable to the affiliates, that would mean there would be three late-night OBRIENshows going head to head. That's a recipe for disaster. On top of all this, assuming Fox sells its affiliates on the idea, it's not like he'd go on the air in two weeks. Assuming he could wrestle out of his NBC deal, the earliest he could hit Fox is in the fall, and that is probably incredibly wishful thinking. O'Brien could easily end up sitting on the sidelines for at least a year, which is an eternity in TV time.

Talks between O'Brien and NBC are ongoing, with the two sides debating whether the network is voiding his contract by moving the show. Unfortunately for O'Brien, during negotiations for his original deal to host "The Tonight Show" his management apparently forgot to get it in writing that the show's time slot would always start at  11:35 p.m.

That little detail may be key in keeping NBC from having to shell out any sort of penalty or to release O'Brien from his contract. According to people familiar with O'Brien's deal, it does not contain any clauses that would prevent NBC from moving "The Tonight Show" out of 11:35 without violating his deal.

Whether not having a time-period-specific clause would stand up legally, should it come to that, may be another story. After all, "The Tonight Show" has aired at the same time for some 50 years, which sure sounds like precedent, but we're not lawyers here. If Leno's old "Tonight Show" deal also included a time-period clause is not known, some say it did, others say no. David Letterman's deal when he went to CBS did have such a clause, said a person with knowledge of that contract. O'Brien's lawyer Leigh Brecheen did not return calls seeking comment, and WME Entertainment, O'Brien's agency, also declined comment.

O'Brien has a powerhouse team at WME. But in this case, short of WME boss Ari Emanuel persuading his brother -- White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel -- to get the Justice Department to block Comcast's takeover of NBC Universal unless O'Brien keeps his job, Conan may be out of luck.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Conan O'Brien. Credit: Reed Saxon / Associated Press.

Comments () | Archives (38)

I hope he goes to a different network, he's funnier than Jay and maybe he'll get some more respect on a different network.

It's now official; Conan has rejected NBC's offer to bump "The Tonight Show" to 12:05am. Now the Peacock Network has a real nightmare on its hands.

Instead of letting go of Jay Leno completely, NBC placated him with a prime time slot, which according to the bean-counters was cheaper to do than pay for five nights of scripted dramas. This double-minded, and ultimately double-dealing, move has collapsed on itself for the whole world to see.

I love much of Conan's goofball humor, like the all-Spanish "Noches de Pasion con Senor O'Brien", but I can't stand why so many other skits are have to be so low-brow and vulgar. Nevertheless, I believe that NBC is the Judas in this whole controversy; they groomed, hyped, and prepared Conan to take over the "Tonight" franchise, then abandon him like a hot potato in order to save face with a predecessor who should have left NBC as originally planned.

I support Conan in his decision to reject the NBC offer. No matter what one thinks of his comedy style, he is the only one with class and integrity in this real-life soap opera.

I personally feel like Conan should be supremely pissed off at Jay Leno for putting him in this position in the first place. Leno's new show is terrible as proven by his ratings. NBC should have forced Leno to retire when his contract was up instead of backing another show. NBC has not provided Conan the support and respect he deserves and I am appalled by their decisions in regard to this manner.

Jay Leno had six years to get used to the idea of retiring and passing on the Tonight Show, as it was passed on to him. He and NBC are treating Conan with a complete lack of respect. What's wrong with him retiring? I don't understand the reasoning for the shake-up. Conan has been with NBC for many years, and that in itself should earn him a little bit of respect. Yes, Leno had a number one show when he "retired", but there is certainly nothing wrong with going out on top. And as for a drop in ratings, I'd be interested to know the statistics for the ratings when Carson passed the show on to Leno. Smarten up NBC, Conan is a popular, hilarious, perfect host for the Tonight Show and deserves to be given his shot just like Leno was. Leno, give it up.

I love Jay, and he will always be my favorite host, but he should do the right thing and retire. This whole mess came about when he had Brett Favre Syndrome and reconsidered his retirement in the first place. He could eventually reinvent the mess of a show he has now and do specials or a weekly show on another network. It is not fair to Conan and Jimmy to push them back to make room for Jay. We need good guys in the spotlight for a change and I would be very disappointed in Jay if this happens.

It seems NBC wanted to conduct this programming experiment (moving Leno to 10 pm), which is fine, but had no plan in place if the experiment failed. It looks like they're running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Very unprofessional. You'd think they would have a cancellation and buyout clause, which would give the network a cancellation option upon payment of a fee. It would probably be a large fee, but still, they'd have a more graceful option than what they are doing now, which is about as graceful as a combine harvester in a china shop.

It’s too bad I stopped owning a TV a few years ago, because I’m a big admirer of Conan’s, and had been waiting for the day he’d take over the Tonight Show for some time… Specifically, since 2003, when NBC signed the contract to make that happen.

Speaking of which, when will people start calling out Jay Leno for claiming he was “fired” from NBC? That’s like Adam Sandler whining about being “fired” from Saturday Night Live! Jay - stop thinking of yourself as the official face of NBC. Just because you could coast until you were 70 doing the job doesn’t mean that’s in the best interest of the show, the network, the viewers, or the wider popular culture. Get out of the way! If you’re actually talented, Jay, go out and do standup, make some films, whatever - just find a dynamic, demanding project that’s not this iron lung that you’ve transformed the Tonight Show and your new show into.

I like Conan more than Leno. Leno kisses up too much to the actors/actresses. Poor Conan. All this leaves a really bad taste in my mouth for NBC. BOOOO NBC. All this will come back to haunt you in a ratings crash!!!!!!!!!! No integrity at all.

Wow. Lawyers forgot to write the time in. Big mistake for entertainment lawyers. The problem is that plenty of shows have changed their time slot, but remained the same shows. NBC lawyers can point to many, many cases of that (reruns, etc.) What a mess.

Bye bye Conan, I never 'got' your goofy style. You just weren't the right fit for Jay's replacement, NBC should have let you go before this. Jay may not be my cup of tea, but he had a very successful show and the network should have kept what works. Me, I'll be watching Craig Fergusen when I can stay up late enough. He's got more talent than any of them.

Ahh...if it gets rid of Jimmy Fallon, then it's worth it. Probably the WORST of all late-night shows.

Conan's statement is really great, honest, and from him - not lawyers.

Read celebrity twitter reaction here:

I don't understand this. Jay left. Why are they bending over backwards for him? I think this whole thing is ridiculous. Good for you, Conan. Stick to your guns.

This "blunder" by NBC is akin to New Coke. In the end, they'll have their #1 brand back, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Buying out Conan will be costly, but that was a price to be paid the moment they prematurely set the succession plan in motion 5 years ago. Live and learn. It's all showbiz funny money anyway, set in inconceivable dollar figures to mere mortals. Conan will land on his feet, Jay will be back, NBC will go on.

This is the most moose-knuckle move I've ever seen, and I don't have a clue about how the whole shuffle came to be. Why is Leno still around? When you leave....leave! It will never be the same if you come back. Absolute moose-knucklery going on down in LA.

I wonder if Conan is thinking about a career change. USC is looking for a football coach.

NBC is stupid. Just plain stupid. If there's a "group" that wants Leno back in his old time slot and Leno's willing to do it because he's a crybaby then let him go there. The thing to do would be to put Conan in Leno's current slot and have at it during primetime. Conan is hilarious and he'd pick up a whole new following during primetime. Then, NBC can hang it's head and go count all their new ratings for Conan! Team Conan!

I wish they would just drop Leno, NBC doesn't deserve Conan after this. Hopefully this move will end up biting NBC and arrogant Leno in the rear. Lets not also forget about the disrespect for Fallon.

Leno sucks.

It's funny that The Tonight Show would now start 5 minutes into tomorrow morning...

You are right, Mr. Flint, you are no lawyer. You also are apparently not much of a television historian. The "Tonight" show has hardly always filled the same time slot. It originally ran from 11:15 p.m. (back when the local news shows were only fifteen minutes long) and ended at 1:00 a.m. (Eastern Time). It long did two separate openings-- at 11:15 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.-- to accommodate the fact that some affiliates then had half-hour-long local newscasts while others maintained their fifteen-minute-long newscasts, until December 1966, when Johnny Carson demanded that the show simply start at 11:30 p.m. (Ed McMahon had done the first fifteen minutes of the show alone, prior to that cutback, since February 1965.) Johnny Carson further had the show cut back, to a 12:30 a.m. finish, in 1980. In 1991, it went to its current 11:35 p.m. to 12:37 a.m. format-- which is a far cry from the original 11:15 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.!

As for Mr. Rodriguez' implication that Jay Leno is a spoilsport who should have just left the network and Conan O'Brien in peace, the mind boggles!?! In the first place, Mr. Leno was offered the primetime slot by NBC, which wanted to retain him-- as much to keep him from going up against Conan O'Brien on any competing network as for Leno's own worth to NBC! In the second place, and even more to the point, it was Jay Leno who was thrown under the bus by NBC's own (pin)head, despite being number one in the ratings in his time slot ever since Hugh Grant's infamous appearance in the summer of 1995, simply to make way for someone who was totally untested in the earlier time slot, and who has now, unsurprisingly, shown himself to be incapable of matching Jay Leno, let alone the icons who preceded him. (Carson himself left before his 30th anniversary because he felt-- rightly-- that the NBC brass preferred to replace him with a hipper, younger host, Jay Leno. "Plus ca change...!")

Yes, it looks like NBC's mismanaged this and that Jay's played his part by flip-flopping on the succession plan but I just can't despair at any of it because the potential upside is too great. TV without Conan O'Brien! What a beautiful prospect.

It was never good enough just to change the channel with that guy because it still irked me that his brainless humour was being transmitted through the same air I had to breathe.

For NBC (and all other networks), it is all about the ratings! Over the years, Jay dominated over Letterman. Conan, in comparison, has has not been able to compete against CBS.

Conan is such a weenie. He is marginally talented and makes about 15 million dollars a year. While thousands of people are losing their jobs every month, he's acting like a spoiled brat. If NBC is paying 15 million a year, they should be able to do whatever they want with his stupid show. Nobody else will give him that kind of dough.

I feel sorry for Conan, I feel that he was put in a bad position by Leno. I agree with Conan in that he did not get enough time to establish the show and Leno is the one who should get his walking papers because its his show that the NBC affiliates are complaining about,his show wasn't getting good ratings therefore just end his show.

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