Conan O’Brien may not be the host of the Tonight Show much longer, but he could have a second career in media relations. Aside from being funny and smart, his statement this week has set the terms of NBC’s internal debate: either he remains the host of the 11:30 Tonight Show franchise, or he leaves NBC. It cites not only the 55-year-old history of the program and it’s Mount Rushmore of hosts, but he mentions the effect on the programs after him. He makes the case that keeping his show at 11:30 is best not only for him, but fair to everyone on the NBC schedule, making him a sympathetic figure.
The statement frames the late night drama that’s unfolding as a choice for NBC between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien – which is a savvy move for O’Brien. The landscape is different now than when NBC chose Leno over David Letterman to replace Johnny Carson out in 1991. Letterman and Leno both had appeared to have decades of television ahead of them – which has proven true. But while O’Brien is in his late 40’s, Leno is 60. The question for NBC isn’t just who hosts the Tonight Show in March 2010, but who hosts it in 2015? (The Green Bay Packers can empathize – they had to go through the same decision with Brett Favre.)
O’Brien’s statement essentially painted this picture for NBC: Choosing Leno now means that in five years, the network could be looking for someone to man the Tonight Show desk in a crowded late-night field that includes Letterman and O’Brien.
Incidentally, it also spiked his ratings.
UPDATE: In what could be considered a self-serving blog post, a blogger for CBS News points out that O’Brien’s statement also sets the stage for a legal battle over breach of contract.