In an open letter addressed to "People of Earth," Conan O'Brien announced Tuesday that he refuses to continue as host of NBC's Tonight Show— a position he's held for only seven months — if the network follows through on its plan to bump the program back 30 minutes so the Jay Leno Show can return to late-night. In the statement, O'Brien claims moving The Tonight Show "into the next day to accommodate another comedy program," would lead to the "destruction" of "the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting." How will this tense standoff play out? (Read the FULL TEXT of Conan's self-deprecating but blistering press release.)
The ball is in NBC's court: "NBC executives clearly believe that moving Leno back to 11:35 is in their best interest," says Mark Graham in New York Magazine, "regardless of how it affects Conan." This makes sense, since "Jay Leno was beating David Letterman in the ratings for a solid 15 years." That said, many "Tonight Show viewers quickly switched their allegiance to Letterman once Jay 'retired' and Conan stepped in." So NBC's gamble will only pay if "the American public" will forgive Leno for "his disastrous move to 10 p.m."
"So what's next for Conan?"
O'Brien could go to Fox — but that would be a bad move: If Conan leaves The Tonight Show, he'll be able to "do has he pleases," says Ken Tucker in Entertainment Weekly. That most likely means moving over to the Fox network, but that decision "would be a mistake." Fox would give O'Brien an 11 p.m. time slot, forcing him to compete "for younger viewers with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert"—a battle that O'Brien would lose unless he could appear as engaged in current events as those rivals.
"Conan O'Brien: Where does he go from here?"
Conan will be fine. Leno, not so much: Regardless of what happens next for Conan O'Brien, the real loser here is Jay Leno, says Linda Holmes at NPR. After all, Leno now has no hope of returning "to 11:35 in peace." Reclaiming his "old spot" would mean forcing Conan out, and that's "not exactly the way a talk-show host wants to be welcomed back to America's living rooms."
"Conan O'Brien rejects NBC's 12:05 plan: So what happens now?"
SEE THE WEEK'S LATEST COVERAGE OF THE LATE-NIGHT WARS:
• Conan vs Leno: The CGI Reenactment
• The full text of Conan's ultimatum to NBC
• Leno vs. Conan: Is NBC ruining its late-night franchise?
• Video: David Letterman's advice for NBC
• NBC mishandles its late-night lineup