Conan O'Brien says no to move

December 15, 2010 11:17:06 AM PST
We don't usually tread on the turf of other TV networks, and I'm walking gingerly right now, with every keystroke. But Conan O'Brien's decision to step down rather than participate in a shakeup of NBC's late-night schedule is news.

Some would say big news, because in the history of arguably the most successful long-running shows in TV, O'Brien was but the fifth host of The Tonight Show.

That is rarified territory, and no one would simply walk away without giving it substantial thought.

Conan is a very smart guy, and the arguments he laid out today in his open letter to "People of Earth" are not so much about him as the show he inherited. The letter is classy, with a capital "C." (CLICK HERE TO READ IT)

I'm assuming you know the backstory: Jay Leno, the fourth host of The Tonight Show, was given a 10 p.m. prime-time talk show and O'Brien was bumped up from his 12:35 a.m. show to become host of the 11:35 p.m. Tonight Show. But the Leno experiment was a disaster, and the NBC affiliates howled like the wind that they were given a pathetic "lead in" to their 11 p.m. newscasts.

So NBC decided to shuffle the deck, with everyone thrown up in the air to see where they landed. It was not its finest hour, and not exactly a how-to lesson in Management 101.

Now Conan, a New Yorker until last June when he moved his family to Southern California, has taken the high road and fallen on the proverbial sword - quitting rather than shuffle. "My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The Tonight Show," he wrote. "But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction."

I've no inside information about what he'll do - he insists he has no plans - or whether NBC wanted this to happen from the get-go. But from my layman's perch, it seems that Mr. O'Brien has saved the network from making a jerry-rigged programming decision designed to please no one, especially the viewers. The plan was to move Leno to 11:35 p.m., and O'Brien to 12:05 a.m. with The Tonight Show.

"The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn't The Tonight Show," O'Brien wrote.

And so he walked away - from a high-profile show, and from a job he's coveted since he was a kid. But tonight, the soon-to-be former Tonight Show host has got to feel good about himself - he took the high road. And his list of admirers and fans has grown by several factors.

We'll have the fallout, tonight at 11. (35 minutes before Nightline.)

Also at 11, our investigative reporter Jim Hoffer has an incredible story of a soldier from Long Island, who just-like-that morphed from hero to criminal. He was court-martialed and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of a friend and fellow soldier following a night of drinking.

But now Jim, using forensic evidence and experts, casts a cloud over that conviction. Did the soldier die from natural causes?

It's a fascinating story.

We'll also have any breaking news of the night, plus Scott Clark with the night's sports. I hope you can join Liz Cho and me, tonight at 11.