By Lisa de Moraes
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; C01
PASADENA, CALIF. -- In what might be a move to leave NBC on his own terms, Conan O'Brien declared Tuesday that he would refuse to host "The Tonight Show" if the network carries through on its plans to move "Tonight" to 12:05 a.m.
O'Brien, who took over the iconic show from Jay Leno only seven months ago, upped the stakes in the gamesmanship that's been unfolding since at least Sunday, when NBC canceled Leno's prime-time weeknight show, reverting it to the 11:35 spot and lopping it to just a half-hour.
"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," O'Brien said in a statement wryly addressed to the "People of Earth."
"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," O'Brien added.
"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."
O'Brien gave no indication of what's next for him, but said he hopes his home network of 16 years will change its mind.
"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."
NBC, though declining to respond to O'Brien, did confirm that O'Brien would go ahead and tape his usual Tuesday night show.
"Hello, my name is Conan O'Brien, and I may soon be available for children's parties," O'Brien said at the top of Tuesday's show.
"Welcome to NBC, where our new slogan is "No longer just screwing up prime-time."
The network's plan to scuttle Leno's 10 p.m. comedy series and shift the host back to late night came only after a disgruntled outcry in December from NBC stations about Leno's disappointing numbers.
"We realized this is just not going to go well if we kept things in place," NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin told TV reporters gathered here on Sunday for the Winter TV Press Tour.
While Leno is being given his old "Tonight Show" start time, he would not get the show name, so NBC would not be in breach of the deal it signed with O'Brien six years ago, in which it promised him "The Tonight Show" as of June 2009.
On Tuesday, O'Brien wasn't buying it:
" 'The Tonight Show' at 12:05 simply isn't the 'Tonight Show,' " he said in his statement.
When Gaspin made the announcement here Sunday, he said he wished he could report that the deals with all the talent were wrapped up, but "we know that is not true; the talks are ongoing."
But Gaspin said he expected to have the deals inked by the time the Winter Olympics begin next month (and Leno's show would be yanked from its 10 p.m. slot). But on Tuesday, O'Brien wrote: "I've been suddenly put in a very public predicament and my bosses are demanding an immediate answer."
"The Jay Leno Show" was a low-cost alternative to expensive scripted programming (Leno boasted he could make a week's worth of his program for the cost of one episode of a scripted 10 p.m. drama). But NBC's closely watched experiment in rewriting the economic rules of broadcast TV failed because Leno's prime-time audience was on a late-night scale, and the threshold for ratings success in prime time is much higher than in late night.
Similarly, as "Tonight Show" host, O'Brien has been averaging ratings that were a slight improvement on his "Late Night" ratings, but not good enough for the more valuable franchise.
Similarly, when Leno took over as host of "The Tonight Show" from Johnny Carson in 1992, it went through a long rough period before finally settling into the top spot in late-night ratings.
"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," O'Brien said in Tuesday's statement.
"Building a lasting audience at 11:30 is impossible without both," the comic and former "Simpsons" writer added.
"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."
One day after Fox executives insisted -- again -- that they were not holding talks with O'Brien about moving to their late night, O'Brien wrote that he wanted to "set the record straight" on that front:
"I currently have no offer and honestly have no idea what happens next," he said.
David Letterman, O'Brien's competitor on CBS in the same time slot, made hay with the ongoing late-night drama during his Tuesday monologue.
"A couple of minutes ago, Conan O'Brien, who was the host of 'The Tonight Show' over there at NBC, announced that he would not follow Jay Leno at 12:05. Yeah, so you know what this means -- that's right, I knocked off another competitor," Letterman told his studio audience.
Letterman said O'Brien decided to put out his statement "after he talked to Johnny Carson." Carson, the longest running "Tonight" host in the franchise's history, died in 2005.
Letterman used to host "Late Night," which followed "Tonight," on NBC -- but he left the network after trying, and failing, to secure the "Tonight" show gig when it went instead to Leno.
"And then I got a call just before I came out here from NBC, and they said, 'Look, look, we still don't want you back,' " Letterman joked.
Last week, Fox said it thought O'Brien would be a good fit at the network but that it was not talking to him about coming over because he is still under contract with NBC.
On Tuesday night, Conan mixed the sarcastic with the sentimental: "When I was a little boy, I remember watching 'The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson' and thinking: "Some day I'm going to host that show for seven months."