||[Jan. 13th, 2010|03:12 pm]
|||||Conan to FOX?||]|
Conan O'Brien says no thanks to NBC move.
"Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien used his best material for his statement that said he wouldn't play ball with NBC's plan for him to make room for Jay Leno to come back to late night.
By the time O'Brien arrived on stage Tuesday night for his "Tonight Show" monologue, his remarks about the scheduling debacle took the form of a few swipes at NBC.
"When I was a little boy, I remember watching 'The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson' and thinking, 'Someday, I'm going to host that show for seven months,'" cracked O'Brien, who took over "Tonight" from Leno last June.
"Welcome to NBC," he added - "where our new slogan is, 'No longer just screwing up prime time.'"
Leno, of course, has been starring weeknights at 10 p.m. EST in a little-watched show that NBC announced earlier this week will be canceled.
"As I'm sure you know," Leno told viewers Tuesday in his own monologue, "NBC announced they are pulling the plug on this show Feb. 12. Here's the amazing part: That is the exact date that the Mayan calendar predicted we would go off the air."
While Leno's return to 11:35 p.m. EST seemed definite, O'Brien's future with the network was anything but clear-cut, after he released his statement earlier in the day that abruptly derailed NBC's rush to put its late-night house in order.
O'Brien said shifting "Tonight" to 12:05 a.m. will "seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting," and he expressed disappointment that NBC had given him less than a year to establish himself as host at 11:35 p.m.
O'Brien said he doesn't have an offer in hand from another network. Fox, which lacks a network late-night show, has expressed its appreciation for him but said this week that no negotiations have been held.
In his statement, wryly addressed to "People of Earth," the comic knocked his network's prime-time ratings woes, which stem in part from the poor performance of Leno's prime-time show. "The Jay Leno Show" debuted in the fall after Leno surrendered his 17-year stake in the "Tonight" last spring to O'Brien.
"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 said.
"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."
"Tonight" with O'Brien is averaging 2.5 million nightly viewers, compared with 4.2 for Letterman's "Late Show," according to Nielsen figures. And the younger audience that O'Brien was expected to woo has been largely unimpressed; O'Brien and Letterman tie among advertiser-favored viewers ages 18 to 49.
Leno was drawing around 5 million viewers to "Tonight," about the same number now watching his new show.
NBC wants to move Leno out of prime-time and to the 11:35 p.m. slot with a half-hour show, bumping "Tonight" to 12:05 a.m. - the latest it's ever regularly aired. The network was under pressure to make a change from its affiliate stations, who found Leno's show an inadequate ratings lead-in for their lucrative local newscasts.
The network had been counting on O'Brien's cooperation, and wanted an answer quickly, so it could get the revamped schedule ready to begin airing after the Winter Olympics, which will dominate NBC's schedule from Feb. 12-28.
NBC announced the "Tonight Show" succession plan in 2004, well before Leno's departure, to try to avoid the Leno-David Letterman battle that ensued when Carson retired in 1992.
Leno, of course, won that battle and the job as "Tonight" host. Letterman left NBC's "Late Night" to host "Late Show" on CBS. Tuesday night he joked that he had received a call from NBC with the message, "Look, look, we still don't want you back."
If "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien decides to leave NBC over its proposed late-night lineup revamp, he might find a warm welcome waiting for him at Fox.
Fox respects O'Brien's talent and sees him as a good fit, a person at the network said Friday. The person, who lacked authority to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Fox was watching to see how the situation played out but that O'Brien remained under contract with NBC.
Faced with poor ratings for both "The Jay Leno Show" and O'Brien's show, the network is said to be considering returning Leno to his 11:35 p.m. EST slot and moving "Tonight" to midnight.
Representatives for O'Brien did not immediately respond to requests for comment about his plans.
ABC, for its part, indicated a lack of interest if O'Brien becomes a free agent.
"With all due respect to Conan, we like the late night hand that we are currently playing," the network, home of "Nightline" in the late-night slot, said in a statement Friday.
Many NBC affiliates have complained that viewership for their 11 p.m. newscasts have plummeted because Leno's 10 p.m. show is such a weak lead-in.
"I think Jay Leno's a great performer. He's just at the wrong place at the wrong time. There's nothing wrong with making mistakes. There is something wrong with not correcting them," said Bob Prather, president and chief operating officer at Atlanta-based Gray Television Inc., whose station group includes 10 NBC affiliates.
Lisa Howfield, general manager of NBC affiliate KVBC in Las Vegas, said Friday: "I'm excited to have Jay land back in late night. It sounds like a great lineup."
O'Brien, who left jokes about the situation to Leno on Thursday, didn't hold back Friday on "Tonight."
"We've got a great show for you tonight. I have no idea what time it will air - but it's going to be a great show," O'Brien said in his monologue.
O'Brien added later that he wanted to address rumors swirling about his show and Leno's, including one that "NBC is going to throw me and Jay in a pit with sharpened sticks. The one who crawls out gets to leave NBC."
Leno also focused on the proposal Friday.
"To be fair, NBC is working on a solution, they say, in which all parties" will be treated unfairly, he quipped in the monologue. "That certain NBC touch."
NBC's contract with O'Brien reportedly allows the network to move "Tonight" to 12:05 a.m. EST but no later, at the risk of substantial financial penalties. With a two-year contract said to be valued at about $28 million per year, O'Brien would have to think hard about walking away.
Leno's show has averaged 5.8 million nightly viewers since its fall debut, about the same number who watched his final "Tonight" season. By comparison, the season's top-rated 10 p.m. network drama, CBS'"The Mentalist," has an average audience of 17.5 million.
O'Brien is averaging 2.5 million nightly viewers, compared with 4.2 for Letterman's "Late Show," according to Nielsen figures. And the younger audience that O'Brien was expected to woo has been largely unimpressed, with O'Brien and Letterman's shows tying among advertiser-favored viewers ages 18 to 49.
Any change would probably not take effect until March, after the Winter Olympics on NBC.
Network executives have been talking with Leno, O'Brien and their representatives to work out a solution. Meanwhile, online reports about the possible changes prompted the network to issue statements of support for both men, while declining to commit itself to keeping Leno's show on in prime time.
The drama verges on a rerun, recalling the messy battle for "Tonight" that Leno and David Letterman waged in the early 1990s when Johnny Carson decided to surrender the throne. Leno claimed it in 1992, with Letterman becoming his competitor at CBS.
In November, Leno told Broadcasting & Cable magazine he would have preferred to stay with "Tonight" and would take the job again if NBC offered it. For O'Brien, the shakeup would be a snub.
"NBC has dealt with this talent in an unusual way, to put it nicely," industry analyst Bill Carroll said Friday.
After picking O'Brien to succeed Leno as the "Tonight" host, NBC took the revolutionary step of moving Leno to prime time to keep him from jumping to a rival network and to hold down production costs, since a talk show is cheaper to make than a series.
But affiliate displeasure grew quickly when Leno's show proved a poor lead-in for the local late newscasts that generate significant station revenue - and which depend on 10 p.m. shows to funnel viewers to them.