Here we go again with the late night wars

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The big news in TV this week has been the drama surrounding NBC's late night programming. When Jay Leno was given a show, The Jay Leno Show, at 1o pm EST I had serious doubts about the success he would have.

Clearly I was right. Leno is not funny, and now a wider audience at an earlier time slot confirmed what I have been saying for years. Now NBC is removing the 10pm talk show from their schedule and Leno, and NBC, are hoping to insert the former Tonight Show host back in his familiar 11:30 pm EST time slot.

Not so fast. Conan is not about to back down and play second fiddle to his predecessor. Conan has worked years to earn his chance at the big chair behind the desk and he has said rather clearly that he does not welcome the change in moving back a half hour.

Here is his entire statement, released today (HT: New York Times, Media Decoder):

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.



Even in his press release statements, he has a sense of humor. But on a serious note, Conan is absolutely, 100% correct in what he says. What NBC is asking, possibly forcing Conan (and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon) to do is unfair. Leno was not brought back to host The Tonight Show ultimately for one reason: David Letterman and the Late Show was kicking his butt. And guess what? Conan was actually doing a decent job against Letterman, although Letterman still was king of the late night shows.

I imagine that Letterman is sitting back in his office chair doing that little laugh he does at the whole NBC mess. Remember, Letterman was once in the middle of the NBC late night drama when Johnny Carson was set to retire. Letterman once was the third wheel in NBC late night and he jumped ship to CBS to take over the crown of late night television. It was also a pretty decent movie as well.

If Conan really is on his way out of the NBC family then I would look for FOX to do their darnedest to reach a deal with him. How would a late night battle between Letterman, Leno and Conan in the same time slot sound?

Letterman would still hold rank I would imagine but I could see Conan taking second ahead of his mentor, Leno. Conan has a loyal following and on the FOX network Conan would fit right in with his sense of humor.

I admit I do not watch late night talk shows the way I used too, but I can not help but be interested by this mess. As a fan of Conan I hope for the best for him and the rest of his staff.

Especially Richie "LaBamaba" Rosenberg.

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