Conan Fights Back

The Tonight Show host is refusing to host at midnight, but he hasn’t quit yet. Kim Masters on what Conan wants as a parting gift from NBC, where he’s headed—and the depth of the network’s epic late-night debacle.

Paul Drinkwater, NBCU Photo Bank / AP Photo

It’s still not entirely clear how Conan O’Brien will come out of the NBC imbroglio, but his lawyers should do fine.

Reading the still-swirling tea leaves, it seems very likely that Jay Leno once again will be doing a program called The Tonight Show at 11:35 on NBC. Followed, amazingly, by relative novice Jimmy Fallon at 12:35.

If so, NBC will be sadly diminished in late night and prime time while having severely exacerbated every problem that led the network to move Leno into prime time in the first place. “The old, crusty veterans believe this may be in the elite league of the biggest messes of all time in television,” says one television veteran.

Assuming that O’Brien leaves, NBC is planning to keep Fallon at 12:35, after Leno. “Boy oh boy, that’s a downgrade” for NBC, says a rival executive.

Kim Masters: Fighting for Conan As for O’Brien, it seems increasingly likely that Fox is in his future—at least, that’s Bill O’Reilly’s prediction. O’Brien has issued a statement that he will not follow Leno at 12:05 because it would destroy The Tonight Show (which at that point would kind of be The Tomorrow Show). In so doing, he has connected with his fans, cemented public sympathy, and done what he can to deepen NBC’s already-staggering embarrassment.

What he has not done is quit.

It isn’t entirely clear what O’Brien’s contract says, but certainly he won’t get anything if he quits. And it appears that he would like a lovely parting gift. NBC is resisting. (“He wants to be paid,” says a network source. “If he comes to work, he’ll be paid.”)

But surely the network wants to end the protracted embarrassment. “The leverage in this case isn’t contractual,” says a veteran entertainment attorney. “The leverage that Conan has on them has to do with public relations.”

Assuming that O’Brien leaves, NBC is planning to keep Fallon at 12:35, after Leno. “Boy oh boy, that’s a downgrade” for NBC, from having had O’Brien follow Leno in that hour, says a rival executive. “I like Jimmy, but he’s not ready and will deliver really narrow ratings.” (O’Brien opened his Tuesday-night monologue by saying, “Welcome to NBC, where our new slogan is, ‘No longer just screwing up prime time.’”)

Aside from all the damage that NBC has inflicted on its prime-time schedule, its affiliates, and its late-night lineup, the network hasn’t even met the goal that initiated this whole debacle: lining up a successor to assume The Tonight Show mantle after Leno. He turns 60 this year, and the only half-good news for NBC is that he clearly never wants to quit.

A Tonight Show veteran recalls how the staff grumbled years ago, when NBC wanted Leno to book the aged Bob Hope as a guest on the show. “He could barely hear, barely walk,” this insider says. “That’s going to be Jay.”

Assuming, of course, that NBC lasts that long.

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Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.