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NBC's endorsement of Conan O'Brien leaves plenty of wiggle room

NBC executives spent most of the day in lockdown figuring how to spin their plans to get Jay Leno out of prime time and back to late night.

OBRIEN Feeling pressure from affiliates, who have been griping for months about how Leno's 10 p.m performance is hurting their late news and bottom line, NBC is scrambling to put together a strategy to appease them and keep Leno on the payroll.

The odd man out in all this may be Conan O'Brien. NBC wants O'Brien to stay, but his show would move to 12:05 and he'd be following Leno again. The only difference would be that Leno's show would be only 30 minutes while O'Brien would keep his hour and probably the title of "Tonight Show" host. (For complete coverage of NBC's Leno-O'Brien flip-flop see our story here.)

In a statement, NBC said, "We remain committed to keeping Conan O’Brien on NBC. He is a valued part of our late-night line-up, as he has been for more than 16 years, and is one of the most respected entertainers on television."

What NBC didn't say was it wanted to keep O'Brien in his current time slot.

People close to the situation expect all the details to be hammered out over the next few days. NBC executives are scheduled to meet with reporters on Sunday at the semiannual Television Critics Tour, and if they don't have an announcement then, they most certainly will when they meet with their affiliates in New York in three weeks.

O'Brien's best move may be to sit tight. Fox was interested in him years ago but a senior executive there indicated that may not be the case anymore. ABC is getting by with "Nightline" and Jimmy Kimmel and may not want to spend the bucks necessary to land O'Brien. Plus, Leno can't go on forever can he?

If all goes as planned, Leno could be back in late night as early as March. The network will have to rustle up some programming for the 10 p.m. hour. Look for lots of episodes of "Dateline" and "Law & Order."

If only NBC had this much drama in front of the cameras, its ratings might be higher.

Meanwhile, lots of Conan fans are complaining on Twitter about O'Brien possibly losing his 11:30 time slot and blaming Comcast, the cable giant that is in the process of taking control of NBC Universal. Sorry folks, you can't blame the cable company for this mess.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Conan O'Brien. Credit: Frederick Brown / Getty Images

Comments () | Archives (106)

If the Conan bashers here are younger than 60 I'd be shocked. Conan O'Brien is a breath a fresh air compared to the old, tired, bland Leno. NBC, leave Conan alone and give the poor guy a chance to build an audience properly, with a GOOD 10 PM lead in.

What harsh posts, Conan does a great job, and he is funny to a lot of people. I guess if calling people names makes you guys feel better then you should both have a great day. Conan is a class guy, who stays true to himself. I guess to win your coveted high brow affection maybe he should sleep around or bash the conservatives a little more.

Way to stay classy Neil and John.

I haven't watched Leno or Conan for years. They are simply not funny! NBC, wake up and smell the coffee! Get someone NEW! You need a new face with talent and wit and someone who is funny to fill those slots! I totally love Letterman Craig Ferguson and Kimmel, they have a spark of energy and seem to work off the cuff. Someone who has spontaneity! If nothing else, take Leno and Conan off and put on some good movies to watch.

@John, that other guy was someone named Steve Allen.

You all are a bunch of snobs and need to lighten up. Since when does comedy have to be "intellectual?" Jay Leno needs to bow out gracefully. He is the one who isn't funny. Conan is the closest thing we have to Carson, who never minded acting "foolish" or silly to make his audience laugh.

BTW, Conan was valedictorian of his high school class. He attended Harvard, where he graduated magna cum laude.

Instead of just bashing one or the other host how about discussing the issue. I can relate better to Conan because his social commentary is from a place our generation understands...Leno has done a lot of good works, supported many causes and has mastered that Johnny Carson middle of the road humor that has kept his brand loyalty. Plus I think Mavis is great in her supporting certain causes they are a great couple...I see this as a case of they (NBC)fixed something that was never broken, now they see the machine is going "clunk". Each of these hosts have their qualities that appeal to different kinds of audiences. What I don't get is why can't they just give each man an hour and promote the hell out of it, the younger Red Bull crowd of late night will stay up for Conan or TIVO it, the Leno crowd will show up at 11:30 ala Johnny Carson back in the day and everyone gets what they want. Personally if Conan had to walk, I see him on Comedy Central doing his own gig and having more of the freedom to bring his social satire to a built in audience that knows where he is coming from (Remember when he went to "war" with Colbert and Stewart, we dig that). The networks should be concerned if he does jump to cable TV, if he finds his niche audience that would take away more viewers from network TV. It might not be a huge number of people but it would wittle down the network viewership a little more, and the networks can't sell their ads for premiums if they can't deliver the ratings to their sponsors.

It amuses me that many people have lost their sense of humor. *cough* the old fogies below me *cough* "Politics politics" Oh yeah ! That's humor!... Old fuddy duddies don't know Conan because they don't know humor. Leno, hit the road buddy. Your time has long gone.

conan is funny as hell! his slapstick and childlike humor is what makes him funny! the immature jokes and retarded charisma is the soul of conan and what made him number one for 16 years! he's absolutely indispensable! he worked hard for his time slot and now the old men at nbc want to push him back! thats not acceptable and leno needs to retire now. his jokes are too squeaky clean and kind of corny and dont work for him. thats why he sucked in his 10pm time slot, because he can't entertain on his own. he needs at least 2 guests on his show to keep it entertaining. conan can make things entertaining without any guests, and when he has guests hes effing hilarious! KEEP CONAN. GET RID OF THE GARBAGE THAT IS LENO. don't give a rats ass about Fallon though he is starting to grow on me.

Niel, Harvard does let in a lot of intellectual featherweights doesn't it?

Leno is the intellectual featherweight. He's a workhorse for sure, but I wouldn't consider him the smartest man in late night---far from it. He works hard and his ratings and following are his rewards.

If you don't get Conan, that's OK, go watch Letterman. When Letterman is "on," he's the smartest, quickest wit in late night. Conan and Kimmel are right behind him... Leno is a distant fourth when it comes to wit and intellectual humor.

Huh. As a 37-year old, educated professional (i.e. not a 15-year-old), I find O'Brien far more hilarious than Leno ever was. Admittedly, he's not a great monologuist, which may hurt him on his timeslot. He's a good interviewer, though.

Hey James - you still lamenting the loss of the 8-track-tape. The 70's are over bud. Get with it or check out.

Posted by: James | January 07, 2010 at 11:16 PM

Whenever I see Conan on TV I get a strong feeling of embarrassment on his behalf because he is simply not funny to anyone over 15. His humour is simple schoolboy humour and is witless. He is such an intellectual featherweight he irritates me. I cannot, for the life of me, see how any adult can find him funny, still less give him a TV show and pay him for it. When I think of Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett, each of whom had a brain and had wit, it is so sad to see such a sad, sad substitute as is O’Brien. Why not put him on an early, early program for kids who wake up too early?

take a nap grandpas...

Jay Leno isn't funny to anyone under 80 years old. Get that dinosaur off the air. Conan is much funnier but late shows will probably die off soon anyways.

@ Neil and John: Carson, Parr, Griffin, Cavett? Seriously? I'm not denying their talent, but let it go. The past is just that, and no amount of wishing or praying will bring it back. Things evolve, and your inability to realize this is heart breaking. I wish I had time to say more, but I've got run. Peter O'Toole is calling me from the next room.

Conan is the far superior host and entertainer, and is also the voice of late-night TV for anyone under 35. To mothball Conan in order to keep Leno afloat is a mistake for two reasons.

First, Leno's appeal is extremely limited, as shown by the dismal ratings for his new show. Second, the generation that enjoys Leno is aging out, and is definitely not your long-term market. So while Leno at 11:35 might get NBC some older viewers now, younger viewers will remember their favorite late-night host getting the shaft, and that type of ill will from a large chunk of younger viewers will certainly have a long-term impact on NBC as those viewers grow up.

Someone brought it up yesterday in a group of about six or seven of us. One guy asked me what I thought of Conan and I said I couldn't stand to look at the guy. In an instant everyone one else agreed except for one person. Conan is simply a weird looking person I cannot look at and take seriously. Therefore, I will not watch his show. And, there are apparently lots of people who agree with me.

Leno needs more cowbell.

Conan was never funny and they should have never taken Leno off the Tonight Show in the first place.

Both Jay and Conan are terrible.
Conan was spinning coins to kill time during the writer's strike. What a talent!
Its clear no one is watching either of these guys anyway.

Whoa whoa whoa, what's with all this personal attacking? Everyone is entitled to their opinion, so if someone doesn't like Leno or Conan, just let it go. It's not like you can change their opinion on who they prefer.

Here's the bottom line: NBC and Jeff Zucker are the biggest idiots that got themselves into this mess. Everything was fine the way it was, and they should've just let Leno stay at 11:30 and Conan at 12:30. Neither of them fit into their new time slots: Leno's audience is just his Tonight Show audience, and that small number doesn't work in prime time. And a lot of the people who previously watched The Tonight Show have not been watching Conan because his appeal is to a different demographic.

Both fit in their old time slots. Like the saying goes: if it aint broke, don't fix it. One attempt to "fix" the situation just created a domino effect and turned into an embarrassing pickle for NBC.

NBC, just put everything back the way it was and everyone will be happy.

Solution: Release Leno from contract, let FOX have him for 11:30 slot - right up against Conan.

Meh, all I know is I'd rather see Conan over Leno any day. Leno only deserves the half hour. Why did he leave the show if he was only going to push a stick up everyone's butts months later? Conan should stay where he's at. Let Leno's rusted old body rumble to a stop if he wants to. Looks like he surrendered up the opportunity to bow out with dignity a while ago.

Thank you for your sharing.!

Hey John C. Pavlovski, how old are you exactly? 84? You don't need to personally attack Conan or the people who like watching him just because your own life has been a total failure. CTFO

So what if Conan went to Harvard! This is not what comes to mind when I hear him rattle off one inane joke after another (at a low level for the average 4th grader). Am I the only one that believes that a show with real content could work well for NBC at this time?

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