Conan O'Brien won't do a later 'Tonight Show'

NBC has insisted the host move to 12:05 a.m. slot

Conan O'Brien is not moving.

The late-night host says he won't cooperate with the network's plan to move "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien" to 12:05 a.m. to accommodate a return of Jay Leno to the network's crowded late-night lineup with a half-hour version of the primetime "Jay Leno Show."

O'Brien informed the writing staff on "Tonight" of his decision Tuesday morning as he released a witty but sternly worded statement that people close to him said "came from his heart."

Addressed to "People of Earth," it details the reasons for his decision, which boil down to one line: " 'The Tonight Show' at 12:05 simply isn't 'The Tonight Show.' "

"Saturday Night Live" last week mocked NBC's plan to push a show called "Tonight" to the next day.

The irony apparently wasn't lost on O'Brien, who got his break as a writer on "SNL."

"For 60 years, 'The Tonight Show' has aired immediately following the late local news," he wrote. "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."

As one person from his inner circle put it, "He wants to do the show at 11:35."

That brings up a contractual issue: What exactly constitutes "The Tonight Show"? Is it a late-night show that has "Tonight" in the title or a late-night show that must start at 11:35 p.m.?

O'Brien thinks it's the latter; NBC believes it's the former.

"We gave something important to him, which was 'The Tonight Show,' and it is moving with him," NBC Universal Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin said Sunday at the network's TCA presentation. "Conan wanted the franchise of 'The Tonight Show'; Jay wanted to tell jokes at 11:30."

Resolving the discrepancy will come down to O'Brien's contract, which reportedly doesn't include a time-slot guarantee.

Because NBC already has put the late-night changes in motion -- announcing that "Jay Leno" will end its 10 p.m. run Feb. 12 and that it is looking to promote its new late-night lineup, anchored by Leno at 11:35, during the Winter Olympics -- the network doesn't have many options with O'Brien.

It might pay off the remainder of his two-year contract, worth more than $10 million a year, and keep the comedian on the sidelines for the next year and a half, or it might negotiate a settlement for a lesser amount that will allow O'Brien to go elsewhere sooner.

Touching on his future, O'Brien stressed that he has "no offers" from other networks and that he hopes to resolve his issues with NBC.

O'Brien took his availability one step further in his monologue Thursday night.

"Hello, my name is Conan O'Brien, and I may soon be available for children's parties," he said.

He also took a shot at NBC, "where our new slogan is, 'No longer just screwing up primetime'."

O'Brien's argument is that the Peacock never gave him and his "Tonight Show" a chance, downgrading its time period after seven months, and that his soft ratings performance against CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" was exacerbated by NBC's primetime ratings woes.

It took Leno a couple of years of trailing Letterman before he established himself as the late-night leader.

If the two sides work out a financial settlement and O'Brien's walks, Fox has expressed interest in launching a weekday late-night show with the younger-skewing host.

And if O'Brien leaves, Leno might end up back where he was seven months ago, hosting an hourlong "Tonight" at 11:35 p.m.

The network declined comment on O'Brien's statement Tuesday -- a change in PR strategy from Thursday, when the Peacock got into hot water as it attempted to control the breaking story on its late-night plans.

O'Brien's statement follows on the next page.

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.