LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Conan O’Brien said on Tuesday he will not carry on as host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” if the struggling network moves the program to an after-midnight slot as part of a revamped evening line-up.
O’Brien, who took over NBC’s flagship talk show from Jay Leno just seven months ago, said it was “an enormous personal disappointment” to see his program moved to the later time.
“My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of ‘The Tonight Show,’ he said in a statement. “But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction.”
O’Brien did not say he was quitting NBC and noted he had no offer from rival networks.
Some media analysts said he was effectively asking NBC to make a choice between him and Leno — and that Leno would be the likely winner.
Paul Kagan, CEO of PK Worldmedia, told Reuters he expected that O’Brien would move to Fox or another network and Leno would get his old job back on “The Tonight Show.”
There was no immediate comment from NBC, which is owned by General Electric Co. Both Leno and O’Brien were expected to be on the air as usual on Tuesday night.
“My hope is that NBC and I can resolve this quickly so that my staff, crew and I can do a show that we can be proud for a company that values our work,” O’Brien said.
He slammed NBC for not giving his show more support and time to build an audience.
His statement followed an embarrassing retreat by NBC on Sunday from its cost-cutting experiment with “The Jay Leno Show” in the 10 p.m. prime time slot because of poor ratings and pressure from local affiliates.
NBC is at the bottom of the four leading U.S. networks.
Network executives said “The Jay Leno Show” at 10 p.m. would end on February 12 and that they were in talks with Leno and O’Brien to move both their shows to a later hour.
Under the plan, Leno would have a 30-minute show at 11:35 p.m. and O’Brien’s show would be pushed to 12:05 a.m. “The Late Show” with Jimmy Fallon would move to 1:05 a.m.
“I don’t think they (NBC) will tell Jay to take a hike. To me, putting Leno back there at 11.35 p.m. was a statement,” Kagan said.
O’Brien said moving “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.”
O’Brien said he had “no other offer and honestly have no idea what happens next.”
Fox TV executives said on Monday they had informal talks with O’Brien’s representatives about a possible move but, for contractual reasons, were waiting for O’Brien to make a decision about his future.
News Corp’s Fox now has no late-night talk show. Walt Disney Co has made clear it is happy with its own late-night schedule.
Audiences for “The Tonight Show” have slid since O’Brien took over in June, allowing rival David Letterman on CBS to take the lead in the ratings battle for late-night network viewers at a time when mainstream television is losing ground to video games and social networking sites.
Time magazine TV writer James Poniewozik said O’Brien’s statement was not exactly a threat to quit “but it is demanding NBC choose him or Leno.”
Additional reporting by Christine Kearney; Editing by Cynthia Osterman