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Conan: I Won’t Destroy the Tonight Show

Conan O'Brien seemingly called it quits Tuesday, refusing to have his "Tonight Show" bumped to the after-midnight hour to make room for Jay Leno.

But it's unclear if he intends to leave the network, or if this marks the first volley in a legal maneuver to keep his current time slot. O'Brien made his decision five days after NBC informed him of its plan to pull Leno's prime-time show and return him to a half-hour format in late night, and said he faced pressure from NBC to agree to the change.

If he does quit, Leno would reclaim the perch he'd held since 1992 and never wanted to leave. "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" would follow Leno at 12:35 a.m. But any outcome would leave the fourth-place network reeling. NBC declined to comment, though Conan is scheduled to tape a show this afternoon.

In a statement, O'Brien signaled deep displeasure with NBC's planed move, saying he'd been cheated out of a contractual promise made in 2004 to hand him the "Tonight Show" reins. "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. But sadly, we were never given that chance," he said.

"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," he said. " 'The Tonight Show' at 12:05 simply isn't 'The Tonight Show.' I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction."

Now attention will turn to Fox, O'Brien's most likely new home, but executives there have cited commitments to syndicated programming by local stations, and in any event O'Brien's contract - and logistical difficulties - would prevent him from going there anytime soon.

"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," he said. "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."

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