By ADAM BUCKMAN
NEW YORK, Jan. 12, 2010 — Conan O’Brien’s open letter issued today to “People of Earth” contains a sentence that could be interpreted as a veiled dig at Jay Leno for placidly going along with NBC’s plan to move him back to 11:35 p.m. and thereby disrupt a traditional late-night lineup that has been in place for decades.
The line in question comes in the fourth paragraph of the letter, according to a copy of the letter reproduced on TMZ.com. “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,” Conan wrote. “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’,” Conan wrote.
And here’s the kicker: Writes Conan, “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.”
Now, Conan doesn’t write the following, but he certainly could have, just after that sentence: “And by extension, Jay Leno’s refusal to reject NBC’s plan to wedge a half-hour version of his own show between affiliates’ local newscasts and the proposed 12:05 a.m. start of ‘The Tonight Show’ means that Leno is a party to the network’s potential destruction of the revered ‘Tonight Show’ franchise.”
Or, to put it another way, in the very same language in which Conan voices his support for Jimmy Fallon and NBC’s “Late Night,” Conan could be implying: “If Jay Leno accepts this move, he will be knocking ‘The Tonight Show,’ which I inherited from him and he inherited from Johnny Carson, out of its long-held time slot. That would hurt the NBC franchise I love — ‘The Tonight Show’ — and would be unfair to me.”
If Conan’s intention was to imply that Leno is not doing the right thing by acquiescing to NBC’s plan for a half-hour “Jay Leno Show” at 11:35, then Conan might have a fair point, self-serving though it may be. Let’s face it, Conan has been host of “Tonight” for only seven months — too short a time to tell if he’s capable of restoring the show to its traditional No. 1 position in late-night. Remember, it’s Leno, and his 10 p.m. show, who’s getting cancelled due to ratings that have been so low that affiliates were in open revolt. And when was the last time that ever happened? A show has to be a pretty dismal failure for affiliates to get up in arms that way.
Maybe Leno should simply be asked to stand down, come what may. And maybe NBC should simply honor its commitment to Conan. The problem is: NBC execs have created a situation in which it’s probably too late to do either of these things.
Contact Adam Buckman: AdamBuckman14@gmail.com