NBC may control its airwaves but it does not apparently control Conan O’Brien.
Less than a week after NBC told him they intended to move his “Tonight Show” to a new time, 12:05 a.m., O’Brien he said he would not agree to what he considered a demotion for the institution of the “Tonight Show” — and his own career — by going along with NBC’s plans to push him back a half-hour to make room for his predecessor at “Tonight,” Jay Leno.
O’Brien’s artfully composed statement Tuesday said that he so respects that institution of the “Tonight Show” that he could not participate in what “I honestly believe is its destruction.”
Pointedly, O’Brien did not resign or indicate he would not show up for work. But an executive at the network who declined to be identified because of ongoing negotiations said that O’Brien would leave once a financial settlement was reached.
Even by Hollywood standards, O’Brien’s letter was an extraordinary gesture — releasing a statement on a public relations news service to make public his anger at the company paying him tens of millions of dollars before he even reached a settlement. The closest episode in history may be when Jack Paar walked off the set of “The Tonight Show” in a huff over corporate censorship.
Paar returned to the show within a month in 1960 but few are predicting a reconciliation between O’Brien and the network. NBC executives continued Tuesday to work toward a financial settlement though some indicated increasing impatience with O’Brien’s effort to blame the network for the three-car pile-up in late night.
The host, who saw his brief run as host of “Tonight” cut short when NBC decided to restore Leno to the 11:35 p.m. time period, has been growing increasingly upset in recent days about how he believes he was treated by NBC’s management.
A representative of the host said Tuesday that the issue came to a head for O’Brien on Monday and that he had “sat up all night drafting the statement.”
The statement also took NBC to task for not giving the show more time or supplying stronger lead-in audiences, which could be interpreted as a shot at Leno’s poor performance at 10 p.m. “After only seven months,” O’Brien wrote, “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.”
He hosted the show Tuesday night, even as negotiations, which one participant described as intense, continued throughout the day.
Nor did NBC take any extraordinary steps to interfere with O’Brien continuing — at least for the moment — to host the show. Though some rumors appeared saying NBC might be lining up guests hosts, NBC quietly dismissed that notion — and indeed such a move could have legal implications because it might be interpreted as NBC firing O’Brien, which could lead to a bigger settlement for him.