Jan. 15, 2010 — -- Hollywood continues to rally around Conan O'Brien amid rumors that NBC may can the "Tonight Show" host as early as today.
Thursday on "The Tonight Show," "Brothers & Sisters" actor Rob Lowe drew on his own experience leaving a hit NBC show to offer the host advice.
"As someone who has left a celebrated NBC franchise himself ... it can be done," Lowe said. "If my experience can give you anything, it's that in a couple of years, no one will even remember 'The Tonight Show,' just like they don't remember 'The West Wing.'"
Prior to "The Tonight Show," on "The Jay Leno Show," special guest Jimmy Kimmel eviscerated Leno for refusing to stand up for O'Brien and, perhaps, for refusing to retire and let the younger generation of comedians take control.
Kimmel participated in Leno's "10 at 10" question-and-answer segment via satellite. Asked by Leno, "Ever order anything off the TV?," Kimmel shot back, "Like NBC ordered your show off the TV?"
The ABC late night comic ended the interview admonishing Leno, saying, "All you have to take care of is cars. I mean, we have lives to lead here. You have $800 million dollars -- for God's sake, leave our shows alone."
But some people are sticking up for Leno, like Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Universal Sports who has played a role in many of NBC's entertainment endeavors, including the creation of "Saturday Night Live."
Thursday, Ebersol told The New York Times that O'Brien has no one to blame for his fate besides himself and his disappointing performance, adding that it was "chicken-hearted and gutless," of the comedian to use his shows this week "to blame a guy you couldn't beat in the ratings."
Ebersol added that "what this is really all about is an astounding failure by Conan."
Meanwhile, movie and TV industry blog Deadline Hollywood reported late Thursday that NBC wants to resolve the "Conan problem" by the end of the day today, likely by offering him a huge cash settlement and a promise that he can appear on a competing network sooner rather than later.
TMZ.com reported that Leno struck a deal with NBC to take back his old "Tonight Show" gig, People.com reported that O'Brien will leave the show Friday, Jan. 22.
Representatives for O'Brien and "The Tonight Show" declined to comment on the reports.
All this week, the hits kept coming for NBC. Unfortunately for the network, they weren't the kind they wanted.
Both Leno and O'Brien assaulted the suits Wednesday night as the network's programming imbroglio dragged on. In his monologue at the top of "The Jay Leno Show," the host addressed the ongoing kerfuffle by announcing, "Welcome to NBC, America's most dysfunctional TV family. And you thought the Gosselins were screwed up."
NBC announced Sunday that it plans to drop O'Brien from his 11:35 p.m. ET time slot come February to make room for a re-jiggered Jay Leno program, which will leave its 10 p.m. prime time slot.
In a direct reply to O'Brien's Tuesday night monologue, Leno admitted that "Conan O'Brien is understandably very upset."
But he marveled at the fact that O'Brien has been host of NBC's most venerable late night franchise for seven months.
"How did he get that deal?" asked Leno. "We only got four months! Who's his agent?"
Still, Leno's jabs seemed less barbed than O'Brien's in the later time slot.
Wednesday, O'Brien seemed wholly uninterested in currying favor with NBC, and even took a swipe at his in-house rival.
"Hosting the 'Tonight Show' has been a fulfillment of a lifelong dream to me," he said. "I just want to say to the kids out there: 'You can do anything you want in life -- unless Jay Leno wants to do it too."
O'Brien's first guest of the evening, the dry-witted British comedian Ricky Gevais, got in on the fun too.
"You're having a good time sticking it to NBC aren't you," asked Gervais, who will be hosting the upcoming Golden Globe Awards for the network. "What are you going to do [next]? ... You've got no discernable skills."
O'Brien Bows Out With Bombastic Statement
Battle lines were drawn Tuesday afternoon, when O'Brien declared he will not do "The Tonight Show" if its new airtime is 12:05 a.m. After releasing his statement, fans rallied around O'Brien via the Internet, turning him into a trending topic on Twitter and voicing support for "Team Conan."
Below, the full text of O'Brien's statement.
People of Earth:
In the last few days, I've been getting a lot of sympathy calls, and I want to start by making it clear that no one should waste a second feeling sorry for me. For 17 years, I've been getting paid to do what I love most and, in a world with real problems, I've been absurdly lucky. That said, I've been suddenly put in a very public predicament and my bosses are demanding an immediate decision.
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.
But sadly, we were never given that chance. After only seven months, with my "Tonight Show" in its infancy, NBC has decided to react to their terrible difficulties in prime-time by making a change in their long-established late night schedule.
Last Thursday, NBC executives told me they intended to move the "Tonight Show" to 12:05 to accommodate the Jay Leno Show at 11:35. For 60 years the "Tonight Show" has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying 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. "The Tonight Show" at 12:05 simply isn't the "Tonight Show." Also, if I accept this move I will be knocking the "Late Night" show, which I inherited from David Letterman and passed on to Jimmy Fallon, out of its long-held time slot. That would hurt the other NBC franchise that I love, and it would be unfair to Jimmy.
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.
There has been speculation about my going to another network but, to set the record straight, I currently have no other offer and honestly have no idea what happens next. My hope is that NBC and I can resolve this quickly so that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of, for a company that values our work.
Have a great day and, for the record, I am truly sorry about my hair; it's always been that way.
Jerry Seinfeld Sticks Up for NBC
It's hard to blame O'Brien for being a tad bitter, though fellow comic Jerry Seinfeld doesn't think he should be.
Seinfeld, whose iconic sitcom aired on the network during the '90s and '00s, praised NBC's vision in moving Leno to prime time, even if the gamble didn't quite work out as planned.
"This was the right idea at the wrong time," Seinfeld said while promoting his new reality show, "The Marriage Ref," in Los Angeles Sunday. "I'm proud that NBC had the guts to try something."
Seinfeld also said O'Brien will emerge from the wreckage unscathed.
"What did the network do to him?" Seinfeld asked. "I don't think anyone's preventing people from watching Conan. Once they give you the cameras, it's on you. I can't blame NBC for having to move things around. I hope Conan stays, I think he's terrific. But there's no rules in show business, there's no refs."
It remains to be seen if O'Brien will stay with the network that made him a star of if he'll fly the coop. He's reportedly exploring his options with Fox, but Monday, Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly told reporters that his network is waiting for O'Brien to determine his own fate with NBC before making an offer.
"I love Conan personally and professionally. But right now, he has to make a decision," Reilly said.
NBC Pulls Plug on Leno's Primetime Experiment
Amid sinking ratings and worried affiliates, NBC announced Sunday that the Jay Leno prime-time experiment will end Feb. 12.
NBC confirmed Sunday that it will yank the comic's 10 p.m. nightly hour once the Winter Olympics begin, and it hopes he will accept a half-hour version of his show at his old time -- 11:35 p.m. -- instead.
"While it was performing at acceptable levels for the network, it did not meet our affiliates' needs and we realized we had to make a change," NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin said at the NBC winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif., Sunday.
"What happened starting in November [was] the affiliates called, saying, 'Wow, wow, our local news is being affected more than we expected,'" Gaspin said.
NBC has spoken to Leno, O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon about moving their shows to later start times, Gaspin said. Under the proposal, O'Brien, the man who replaced Leno as host of "The Tonight Show," would move to 12:05 a.m., and Fallon to 1:05 a.m.
"My goal right now is to keep Jay, Conan and Jimmy as part of our late-night lineup," Gaspin said. "As much as I would like to tell you we have a done deal, we know that's not true. The talks are still ongoing."
Last week, amid a firestorm of speculation that NBC might can O'Brien altogether, the network released a statement declaring its loyalty to the late-night comic.
"We remain committed to keeping Conan O'Brien on NBC," the network said in a statement last Thursday. "He is a valued part of our late-night lineup, as he has been for more than 16 years, and is one of the most respected entertainers on television."
ABC News' David Alpert and Brian Rooney contributed to this report.