Well, that ended badly, didn't it?
An NBC plan announced six years ago to effect an orderly transition on "The Tonight Show" and avoid the crisis that engulfed the franchise after Johnny Carson left, collapsed in a steaming heap Tuesday: Conan O'Brien rejected an offer to host a post-midnight "Tonight," and for all intents and purposes ended his career at NBC, too.
Meanwhile, the network declined to confirm or deny reports saying Jay Leno would return as host of "Tonight." (The 11:35 p.m. show NBC wanted him to host would have continued to be called "The Jay Leno Show.")
O'Brien dropped his bombshell midafternoon via a statement that humorously began, "People of Earth," but ended up reading like a Russian novel - a short, nonviolent one perhaps - of heart-wrenching defeat, and feckless, faithless bosses. "I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is ['Tonight's'] destruction," he wrote, saying a delay to 12:05 "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 'The Tonight Show.' "
He added, "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."
NBC had no comment, but colleagues did. "I feel so bad for Jay and Conan," said Roy Jenkins, a former writer and character actor on the old "Late Night." "It's just like [they] did the right thing, and Conan moved his staff from New York, but no good deed goes unpunished." O'Brien, he said, "was put in this rotten position."
If Tuesday night's "Tonight" was Conan's last, NBC will have to begin the process of untangling various contractual obligations - a process that will cost the network many millions and perhaps see O'Brien end up at Fox in an 11 p.m. show where he could hurt the very late local news programs of NBC that the network was so anxious to protect in the first place.
In his statement, O'Brien said, "I currently have no other offer and honestly have no idea what happens next."
Fox declined to comment on the O'Brien statement, while ABC Entertainment chief Steve McPherson said there was no interest on his end because Conan's "Tonight" was too similar in tone to "Late Show with David Letterman."