Conan O’Brien’s manager says statement not about points or strategy

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Conan O’Brien’s statement to the ‘people of Earth’ about his thoughts on being asked to move ‘The Tonight Show’ to 12:05 a.m. so NBC can put Jay Leno back at 11:35 p.m. was not a negotiating ploy, according to his manager.

‘This came from the heart,’ said Gavin Polone, the veteran producer and manager who is responding to calls about O’Brien’s missive, in which the host wrote NBC has not given him a chance to establish himself at ‘The Tonight Show’ and that he is the victim of the network’s prime-time woes.

‘It’s him expressing his feelings; there is nothing else behind it,’ Polone said, adding, ‘it’s not about strategy and contracts.’ That won’t stop people from reading O’Brien’s statement to NBC as him saying he won’t quit ‘The Tonight Show’ but he won’t play ball if it moves to 12:05 a.m., either of which would force NBC into firing him. NBC is declining to comment on his statement.

Regardless of how this all plays out, it is the latest in a series of public relations misfires for NBC. The network was caught by surprise last week when its plans to move Leno back to late night and bump O’Brien were leaked and today it also didn’t know what to say in response to O’Brien’s remarks.

While O’Brien notes that he was only given seven months to prove himself in late night, so far this season he trails CBS’s ‘Late Show With David Letterman’ by 65% in viewers. The shows are tied in the key 18-49 demographic, but O’Brien has squandered a 15% lead in that group that Leno left him.O’Brien supporters argue that Leno struggled for almost two years against Letterman before passing him in the ratings. Of course, the media landscape has changed dramatically since the mid-1990s and for better or for worse, networks just don’t have that kind of patience anymore. If they did, NBC would stand tall behind Leno in prime time instead of deciding to end that show less than four months after its premiere.


Some NBC affiliates agree that one can’t blame O’Brien alone for the performance of ‘The Tonight Show.’

“It’s difficult to point your finger at ‘The Tonight Show’ and say it is doing well or poorly,” said Ray Heacox, president of NBC affiliate KING-TV Seattle. NBC’s prime time is struggling and that hurts late news, which then hurts O’Brien. “It is tough to separate what is cause and what is effect.” Heacock thinks “the best of all worlds is to get them all to play happily together because that would be the best possible lineup.”

That may be wishful thinking.

-- Joe Flint

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