Conan O’Brien Rejects ‘Tonight Show’ Move

conan-obrienIn a somewhat unexpected move, Conan O’Brien has told NBC that he will not agree to moving “The Tonight Show” to after midnight to get the network out of the hash they created by moving Jay Leno to prime time. He issued a long statement explaining why:

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.

While I’ve got no dog in this fight — I’ve seldom seen O’Brien’s show (old or new), haven’t watched Leno’s new show, and won’t watch “Tonight” regardless of who’s hosting it or when it’s aired — I’ve come around to O’Brien’s way of thinking.

NBC made a bad choice six years ago when it kicked the can down the road and set Leno’s premature retirement into motion.  It compounded that error by putting Leno up against the other network’s prime time dramas, not only screwing the network’s affiliates but also seriously hampering O’Brien’s chances to succeed in the franchise he waited so long to inherit.  One can certainly understand, then, O’Brien’s not wanting to be relegated back to the midnight slot and screw over Fallon in the process.

One presumes, then, that NBC will figure some way to buy him out of his contract and that O’Brien will do what David Letterman did in a similar situation years ago:  Move to another network and compete against “Tonight.”    Fox has already issued a statement saying they’d love to have him.

In the meantime, Leno, O’Brien, and Letterman are all taking their shots at NBC in their monologues.

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Media, Popular Culture, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. 11B40 says:


    I agree that NBC made a bad move when it shifted Jay Leno’s show to prime time. What’s entertaining at 11:30pm when what’s left of working America is heading for the pillows, is not what entertaining at 10:00pm when there’s still some gas left in the tank.

    However, Conan O’Brien’s pitch is a bit holier-than-thou for my taste. Realistically, how many Americans actually watched these shows out of a population of over 330 million? I would respect him more if he just came out and said, “I have a contract with NBC and I expect them to live up to its provisions.” Mr. O’Brien certainly can’t be mistaken as any kind of a team player in my eyes. The truth is that no one really knows how NBC’s new proposal will work out, just like they didn’t know how the current situation would work out.

    And what about Carson Dailey, for Christ’s sake?

  2. Drew says:


  3. Triumph says:

    While I’ve got no dog in this fight

    Neither do I, but I can’t help but get some joy from seeing the Hollywood liberal media East-Coast elite engaged in a no-win civil war.

    Both Conan–a Harvard liberal–and Leno, another east-coast liberal turned Hollywood mogul, are both about as leftist as Jane Fonda.

    Just like typical selfish liberals, they are fighting like little babies.

    NBC should do the right thing and hire Glen Beck for the Tonight Show. It will blow those other nimrods out of the water.

  4. Brett says:

    So Fox has basically offered to hook him up? Where, there goes the hope for him to do a bunch of ridiculous shows in protest of the move, like having the Masturbating Bear as the sole guest for episode after episode.

  5. Ben says:

    As someone who used to watch Conan pretty religiously, I’d like to put forward an idea that I stole from ESPN columnist Bill Simmons about this situation. What really needs to happen is Conan should get a midnight show on Comedy Central right after the Daily Show and Colbert. My original contribution to this idea is that they should get Norm McDonald to be on every single show with him. When Conan and Norm have hooked up before, it’s always been hilariously funny.