Conan keeps heat on NBC during ‘Tonight’

 

“Tonight” has long been the dominant late-night program on television, with O’Brien following in a line of hosts that included Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Leno. For many of those years, an appearance on “Tonight,” particularly for comics, could make or break a career.

 

NBC wants to move Leno out of prime-time and to the 11:35 p.m. slot with a half-hour show, bumping “Tonight” to 12:05 a.m. — the latest it’s ever regularly aired. The network was under pressure to make a change from its affiliate stations, who found Leno’s show an inadequate ratings lead-in for their lucrative local newscasts.

 

Online, many took to O’Brien’s defense and applauded the host’s stand against NBC. “Team Conan” was one of the most popular Twitter topics Tuesday afternoon, as young viewers pledged their allegiance to O’Brien.

 

An O’Brien portrait also circulated as a badge of support. Referring to the “Tonight” show host’s playful nickname, it read, “I’m with Coco,” and featured a black-and-white picture of a regal-looking O’Brien standing in front of an American flag. The only color: his shock of orange hair.

 

It doesn’t make sense for NBC to try and hold him to a contract, said John Rash, a media analyst for the Chicago advertising firm Campbell & Mithun.

 

“An unhappy comedian is not a good premise for a program,” Rash said.

 

Jody Simon, an entertainment lawyer with Peter Rubin & Simon, said it’s very likely that O’Brien and NBC will reach some sort of settlement that might require him to refrain from working at another late-night show for a certain time.

 

He expected O’Brien will not boycott his show, despite the expressed desire to quit.

“Until this is settled, I would be surprised if he said he wasn’t going to show up for work,” Simon said. “It would be unprofessional and would expose him to liability.”

 

The late-night shuffle has played out amid wide speculation that O’Brien might bolt for Fox. And the network’s top entertainment executive, Kevin Reilly, said on Monday, “I love Conan personally and professionally.”

 

Fox has had trouble launching late-night shows in the past, with Chevy Chase and Joan Rivers as notable failures. O’Brien offers the advantage of being a proven performer with a team experienced in putting on a show.

 

“Certainly Conan has a loyal audience and he’s been able to effectively position himself as a victim of NBC’s schedule shuffle,” said Rash, who added that the tone of O’Brien’s show seems to fit Fox’s brand better than it does NBC’s.

 

ABC’s top entertainment executive, Stephen McPherson, said his network had no interest in O’Brien. ABC would have sought Leno if he hit the open market, but its executives believe that O’Brien’s show is so close in tone to Letterman’s that it wouldn’t be good competition.

 

Fox declined comment Tuesday on O’Brien’s statement, but it is taking action that would indicate the network is seriously considering bringing him to late-night, a period now largely filled by a variety of syndicated fare that includes network reruns.

 

Fox is asking some of its stations to study and report back on how much money is made with current late-night programming, according to a person familiar with the request. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to publicly discuss the request.

 

The syndication agreements that are in place are a costly sticking point if Fox wants to put in a late-night show across the network, the person said.

 

It might not be easy for affiliate stations to break profitable syndication agreements, said analyst Rash.

 

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