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That’s not what he signed up for

Conan O’Brien is prepared to walk.

Relegated again to second-string status, comedian O’Brien on Tuesday refused to go along with NBC’s plans to push his show back a half-hour -- upending the network’s hope to keep its two late-night stars, Jay Leno and O’Brien, on its schedule.

O’Brien instead delivered an ultimatum to his bosses: Keep the storied “The Tonight Show” on at 11:35 p.m. -- or risk losing the man once heralded as the future of the program that has been a pillar of the network since 1954.

The high-stakes stance set the stage for NBC to fire O’Brien, and perhaps trigger another late-night TV war among networks if O’Brien winds up at Fox or another rival. The drama underscored how things can get ugly in a hurry when one of a network’s brightest stars believes that he has been betrayed.

If O’Brien leaves, it would clear the way for Leno to return as host of an hourlong “Tonight Show.”

In a scathing letter addressed to the “People of Earth,” O’Brien ripped into NBC for undercutting his brief reign at “The Tonight Show” with a move that he said would “seriously destroy” what he called “the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.”

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“I grew up watching Johnny Carson every night and the chance to one day sit in that chair has meant everything to me,” O’Brien said. “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.”

But, O’Brien said, NBC robbed him of the chance. Seven months after he took over “The Tonight Show,” NBC told him they were going to shift the program to 12:05 a.m. to make room for Leno to rejoin NBC’s late night lineup. The decision came after NBC said it would pull the plug on Leno’s 10 p.m. show to appease NBC affiliate stations whose ratings have nose-dived. If O’Brien capitulated, he would once again be following Leno.

Instead he set the stage for a showdown with the network.

“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,” he wrote.

NBC declined to comment.

Plans go awry

Ironically, the late-night drama was triggered by NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker’s attempt to avoid a rerun of the messy tug-of-war over the “Tonight Show” chair that occurred in 1992 when Johnny Carson retired from the program. For months, Leno and David Letterman competed for the job, and after NBC picked Leno, an aggrieved Letterman took his act to CBS.

In 2004, Zucker cooked up a plan to give O’Brien “The Tonight Show” in 2009, figuring that by that time Leno would be close to 60 and that America would be ready for a younger face with quirkier sensibilities. Zucker felt assured it would be an orderly transition.

But as 2009 approached, Leno showed no signs of tiring. In fact, he made it clear that he didn’t want to leave “The Tonight Show” and groused on air that he was being pushed out while still on top. Rival networks ABC and Fox began circling, and Zucker came up with a plan that he hoped would keep both comedians at NBC: Leno would host his own prime-time show and O’Brien would get “The Tonight Show,” as promised.

“But there are no orderly transitions. Everything is disorderly in television,” said TV historian Tim Brooks. “What we have is three chairs and four late-night hosts. The music stopped and Conan was the one left without a chair.”

Brooks pointed out that the transition to Johnny Carson nearly a half-century ago was also something of a fiasco. The previous host, Jack Paar, who once stormed off the set, left the show for good in 1962 and “they had to fill in with guest hosts for six months before Carson became available,” he said. “There have been a lot of battles over the years.”

If O’Brien leaves NBC, as is now widely expected, the Leno show would likely run from 11:35 p.m. to 12:36 a.m.; “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” would follow at 12:37 a.m. and “Last Call With Carson Daly” would continue to go on at 1:36 a.m. Under NBC’s proposal -- presented to O’Brien and Leno on Thursday -- Daly’s show would have been dropped because the other shows would have to slide 30 minutes to accommodate Leno from 11:35 p.m. to 12:05 a.m.

Veteran television executives interpreted O’Brien’s missive as a public relations and negotiating ploy that would force NBC to broker a settlement and allow him to go to another network.

O’Brien’s manager, Gavin Polone, said that’s not the case. “Conan is showing up to do his job,” he said. O’Brien’s letter, Polone explained, was not about exerting leverage but rather taking a stand after five days of people asking what he was going to do. O’Brien, who earns about $12 million a year, has about two years left on his NBC contract.

In a tough spot

Jimmy Brogan, a stand-up comic who worked as a writer on “The Tonight Show” for nine years and continues to open for Leno’s Hermosa Beach act on Sunday nights, said NBC horribly mishandled the situation.

“It just looks like they blundered for years on this, pushing Jay out to put Conan in, getting cold feet and putting Jay back on,” Brogan said. “They look like the Three Stooges.”

In deciding to move Leno back to 11:35 p.m., NBC backed O’Brien into a corner, Brogan said. “It would be so hard to follow Jay,” he said, noting that O’Brien would have to do a monologue 20 minutes after Leno and would likely get B-list guests. “It’s just an impossible position he’s in.”

While Leno’s 10 p.m. show averaged just 5.34 million viewers, a 30% drop from what the network averaged last season in that time slot, O’Brien also struggled against CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman.” According to Nielsen, O’Brien has been averaging 2.55 million viewers, which is 65% fewer than Letterman. While O’Brien does better with younger viewers, he has lost Leno’s lead among adults 18-49 and 25-54.

When it comes to evaluating O’Brien’s performance, “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 in Seattle. NBC’s prime time programming is struggling and that hurts late news, which then hurts O’Brien. “It is tough to separate what is cause and what is effect,” Heacox said. “The best of all worlds is to get them all to play happily together because that would be the best possible lineup.”

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meg.james@latimes.com

joe.flint@latimes.com

Matea Gold in New York contributed to this article.


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