By Xan Gwaltney
CHATTANOOGA (UTC/AP/The Loop) — After a two-week battle between Conan O’Brien and NBC, an agreement was reached to end O’Brien’s run as host of “The Tonight Show.”
The network plans to move Jay Leno back to the program he hosted for 17 years, less than eight months after O’Brien took the “Tonight” throne from Leno. Leno, whose weeknight prime-time hour ends February 11 after just five lackluster months, will return to “Tonight” on March 1.
Many UTC students have been unaware of the situation, but Sana Childers, a senior from Memphis, expressed disappointment, saying, “I like Conan O’Brien a lot better [than Leno]… I’m kind of sad about that.”
O’Brien landed the “Tonight” show after successfully hosting “Late Night,” which airs an hour later, since 1993. In the fall of 2004, the network announced that O’Brien would take over for Leno in 2009. That move by NBC — and endorsed by Leno, despite his clear aversion to leaving “Tonight” — was designed to keep O’Brien from jumping ship when his contract expired. As years passed and Leno strengthened his grip as the late-night ratings champ, NBC anguished over how to keep him usefully occupied on the network somewhere other than “Tonight,” and safely out of reach of rival networks who were courting him.
But after taking over “Tonight,” O’Brien quickly stumbled in the ratings race against his CBS rival, David Letterman. Under Leno, the “Tonight” show was the ratings champ at 11:35 p.m. Eastern, but he proved an instant flop with his experiment in prime time.
Since O’Brien and Leno had both failed to keep up in ratings in recent months, NBC executives felt the need to restructure its lineup. But few people expected the abrupt upheaval that erupted publicly just two weeks ago, when two Web sites posted stories that the Leno’s show would soon be canceled or moved into O’Brien’s late-night domain. Carson O’Shoney, a junior from Franklin, Tenn. was upset when he heard of the potential restructure, feeling like O’Brien was not given enough time to catch up in the ratings, and NBC was “taking away [O’Brien’s] lifelong dream” to host “The Tonight Show.”
Online, many have leaped to O’Brien’s defense in recent days and applauded his stand against NBC. “Team Conan” became a popular Twitter topic for viewers who pledged their allegiance to O’Brien, while Facebook users have done the same with fan groups and status updates which proudly proclaim “I’m With Coco.”
O’Shoney had the unique opportunity of attending a taping of “The Tonight Show” on Monday, and participating in the “I’m With Coco” rally outside Universal Studios, where the show is taped. There, O’Shoney was part of a crowd he described as “just showing support for [O’Brien], wherever he goes.” O’ Shoney also recalls visits from cast and crew of “The Tonight Show,” including trombonist and frequent joke target La Bamba in “a pope-mobile” and O’Brien himself.
Media experts and fans alike have offered speculation on O’Brien’s future. ABC (which airs “Nightline” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”) has said it wasn’t interested, while Fox, which lacks a network late-night show, expressed appreciation for his show — but nothing more. Comedy Central has also been mentioned as a future home. O’Shoney hopes to see O’Brien host a similar show on Fox, where perhaps he could start his own franchise and inspire others to dream of one day following in his footsteps on Fox.
O’Brien’s final night as host of “The Tonight Show” aired January 22, and earned an impressive 7.0 rating/16 share, easily beating out his fellow late-night hosts, and dwarfing his 3.3/10 average during his run on “Tonight.”
Portions of this article were adapted from Frazier Moore, AP Television Writer.