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The ongoing drama between Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, and their NBC overlords reached near-soap operatic levels today when Conan issued a public statement that he won’t continue with the Tonight Show if NBC moved it to a 12:05am time slot. We’ve covered the background of this whole fiasco previously, and I consider that required reading to grasp the full extent of these events. Not only was Conan’s response a calm and rational approach to NBC’s landscape-changing decision to move the Jay Leno show to 11:35pm (he apparently spent all night working on it), it also inspired a maelstrom of social media support for the wronged late night host.

Some excerpts from Conan’s release, along with some choice late night commentary on this whole mess, after the break.

He started off by telling us how much he’s looked forward to the opportunity to host the Tonight Show, and reminding us about the work he’s put in:

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.

He’s right on both accounts. Even Leno took some time to find his groove after officially taking over The Tonight Show from Johnny Carson — a position which was also mired in controversy from the start since David Letterman was considered by Carson and many others to be his natural successor. Letterman, of course, moved on to CBS.

It was also foolish of NBC to expect that removing scripted dramas from the 10pm slot wouldn’t have any major repercussions throughout the late night shows. They knew that Leno’s show would start off with lower ratings than other 10pm entries — but they steamed ahead because people like Leno, and ultimately it’s much cheaper to produce than hour-long dramas.

Later on in his statement, Conan writes:

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.

Despite accounting for DVRs, many don’t seem to agree with this part of Conan’s logic. I’m sure you could argue that technically  time slots will be less important over time given DVRs and internet streaming, but that’s not what he seems to be talking about. Instead, he’s making a principled defense of the tradition of the Tonight Show, which according to Wikipedia has remained at a time slot around 11:30pm since 1965 (it was moved up five minutes in 1991 to sell more ads). A 12:05am Tonight Show would be a completely different animal, and not at all what he’s worked towards for so long.

It should also be noted that Conan’s statement doesn’t mean he’s leaving for sure — just only if NBC continues with their plan to move Leno’s show to 11:35pm. If NBC backs off, I’m thinking Conan will continue trying to make his Tonight Show better.

Gawker has done the best job of collecting the many different late night host responses to this mess (see Monday night’s collection, and Tuesday night’s), but here are my favorite bits:

Conan’s Monday night monologue:

Conan’s Tuesday night monologue, and a variety of sketches making fun of the situation:

Letterman’s Monday night monologue:

And finally, on another note, Youtube user illvillag (via blogger Alana Taylor) dug up this clip which reminds me why Conan was my favorite Simpsons writer:

Discuss: What do you think of all of this? And if Conan leaves, what would you like to see him do next? (I’m hoping for something different, perhaps a show on the level of 30 Rock.)

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