BREAKING NEWS! 4TH UPDATE

6:25 PM: Conan O’Brien’s monologue tonight was almost poignant: “Hello, my name is Conan O’Brien, and I may soon be available for children’s parties. Welcome to NBC. Where our new slogan is, ‘No longer just screwing up prime-time.’ When I was a little boy, I remember watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and thinking ‘Someday, I’m going to host that show for 7 months.’ NBC says they’re planning to have the late night situation worked out before the Winter Olympics start.  And trust me, when NBC says something – you can take that to the bank!”

1:45 PM: I’ve learned about a meeting that began at 1:45 PM at NBC Universal about The Conan War: On one side of the room — NBCU bigwigs Jeff Gaspin and Marc Graboff. On the other — O’Brien’s reps: manager Gavin Palone, WME agent and board member Rick Rosen, and the newest member of Team O’Brien, Hollywood litigator Patty Glaser, who was hired on Sunday and is WME’s legal shark of choice. I wouldn’t want to be Gaspin or Graboff right now: Gavin can be as mean as a rabid dog, Rick’s agency reps 60% of the TV talent, and Glaser is a pitbull. This is bloodsport.

I’ve learned both NBCU chief Jeff Zucker as well as Gaspin were told that, before it went out, Conan was publicly making that statement (see below). My insiders say O’Brien’s reps didn’t want him to do it. “They were not thrilled. They told him it would undercut his negotiating leverage,” one source revealed to me. “But Conan wouldn’t listen to them. He wanted to make it.” When Conan read the statement to the staff, “he broke up. He began to cry,” one of my insiders reveals. “Because for 17 years he was working towards The Tonight Show, and now he says he’s prepared to walk away from it. That’s an amazing thing. An amazing thing. But he takes very seriously the fact that The Tonight Show baton was passed to him.”

Meanwhile, Hollywood creatives are already starting to show support for Conan against NBC. At the Television Critics Association confab, near the end of the session with ABC TV showrunners, TV showrunners Steve Levitan (Modern Family) and Bill Lawrence (Cougar Town) said almost in unison: “Hey, did you guys read Conan’s letter?” Lawrence added: “I love it. Man, it was just ballsy. It’s just the way I hoped it would be.”

12:15 PM: Mea culpa. When I first read the statement from Conan O’Brien issued out of his Universal City offices at midday, I thought that the late night host was resigning from The Tonight Show. Because it certainly sounded like a “Goodbye, and don’t let the door hit you on the ass” hate letter to NBC. But a second read showed it to be Conan’s declaration of war on the network! Now NBC is in a no-win situation: it’s pissed off Jay. It’s pissed off Conan. And the host whom NBC Universal chairman Jeff Zucker thought would lead NBC’s invincible late night franchise into the future has now just publicly embarrassed all the suits by proclaiming, in essence, HELL NO, I WON’T GO!

And frankly, why should he? NBC was on the hook to pay him a penalty fee of $60 million if O’Brien was yanked as host of The Tonight Show. Well, now NBCU bigwigs have done the second worst thing to him and the franchise: they’ve horribly humiliated him and, as Conan so rightly points out, they plan on permanently damaging The Tonight Show as well by moving it down a half-hour. With the 12:05 AM start, O’Brien’s ratings will never recover. I can report that, after NBC made that decision, the phones at his WME agency rang off the hook with calls from every network, cable, and pay channel looking to hire O’Brien. And there’s every reason for him to flee: I’ve learned that Zucker has been privately blaming Conan for the current debacle, saying “He let me down” because The Tonight Show has been losing out to David Letterman in both eyeballs and advertiser-coveted demographics. (Bullshit, Zucker, you can’t keep blaming others for your Zucked-up messes.) Bad enough that NBC made Conan hear about the planned move in the first place from the media.

So, sure, Conan could leave The Tonight Show and go to a better-run media company for a gig with a less rigid format that’s probably better suited to his talent and personality. But why solve NBC’s conundrum for it? Or voluntarily forfeit that fat penalty fee? As I’ve written previously, the Pottery Barn rule is applicable here: “You break it, you buy it.” NBC should fork over at the very least. Because I know, and you know, and we all know that, if Conan exits, he’ll go on ice for months if not the whole year while the new network or cable channel gets a show ready and on the air. He risks losing his fan base during that time. And he’ll be forever tagged by the failure.

I’m proud of O’Brien for standing his ground and protecting his own and The Tonight Show‘s future from NBC’s nitwits. There’s a rich legacy of that among his predecessors, from Steve Allen through Jack Paar and during Johnny Carson: they all refused to knuckle under to the network. Only Jay Leno didn’t. Instead, he begged like a dog for The Tonight Show, and then rolled over and played dead even after Zucker canned him. Then Leno stayed with the network and agreed to a 10 PM show doomed from the outset. What a doormat. Obviously, NBCU thought Conan would be just as compliant. I’m thrilled that he’s not. Hollywood should be, too, and publicly support him.

Because it’s the kind of principled position you don’t see anymore from showbiz talent who these days are afraid for their future livelihoods in this downsizing entertainment community and just grateful for a job, any job. As much as Big Media’s networks and studios think they call all the shots, and in almost every case they do because they’re so rich and powerful, here’s one of those rare times when they can’t push people around at will. Conan had only 7 months as host of The Tonight Show to prove he was worthy at 11:35 PM. But in late 1993 when NBC was in last place, Jay after 18 months was still losing to Letterman and Don Ohlmeyer was brought in to save the network. The first thing Don did was to retool Leno’s The Tonight Show. It went to No. 1 and stayed there.

So, Jeff Gaspin, this is your moment. Show us you can lead and be creative. Go back and watch O’Brien’s charm and wit when he was hosting Late Night during the writers strike. That was a glimpse of the real Conan, not the uncomfortable twitching wreck doing Tonight Show duty. Play to his strengths. Look, I love Leno’s monologue. But Conan’s Tonight Show is fixable. Of that I have no doubt.

Now, readers, interpret Conan’s statement today for yourselves:

Universal City, CA – January 12, 2010 – Conan O’Brien released the following statement.

People of Earth:

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.

Have a great day and, for the record, I am truly sorry about my hair;
it’s always been that way.

Yours,
Conan