Late night talk show hosts are taking sides at NBC. The network announced this week that it will be moving Jay Leno’s show back to 11:30P. That could have major repercussions for the rest of their lineup. And put Conan O’Brien in a weird position, with his Tonight Show technically starting tomorrow, at 12:05A. 

Conan decided today that he’s not going to accomodate Leno. He released a response to the internet today announcing his refusal to bend to NBC’s will. Within minutes, Conan fans and supporters took to the internet to express outrage over how he is being treated. Which means that NBC may have mistakenly stepped into a (at least temporary) solution to its ratings dilemmas — angry digital consumers tuning into Conan’s show.

NBC is clearly less than pleased with the way its talk show lineup has behaved in the past few months. It’s been only seven months since Conan took over The Tonight Show and Jay Leno made his strange switch to the 10P slot. After both shows failed to get favorable ratings, NBC is trying to fix things by moving everything back to almost the way it was.

But the toothpaste is already out of the tube. And rather than dealing with the slide of viewers away from appointment viewing, NBC hoped to squeeze its hosts back into a row and watch ratings come flying back. But now Conan’s bailing. As he wrote in his letter today:

“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.”

But the ensuing debacle may help Conan’s ratings in a way that claiming The Tonight Show mantle from Leno never did. Conan has always been popular with a younger audience than Leno, but those generally amiable feelings have not translated into high ratings.

And while Leno has been performing poorly at 10P, he’s still doing better than Conan, which is why NBC has been so willing to throw Conan back 30 minutes now.

But in the age of DVRs, all this time slot jockeying seems more than a little silly – something that Jimmy Fallon was quick to note. Asked his reaction to NBC’s actions by The New York Times’ Bill Keller at an event last night, Fallon responded:

“Time doesn’t really matter to me. We’re in a different age. Time is like… I don’t even know what time
‘Jersey Shore’ is on. It doesn’t matter – I’ll see it.”

But not everyone is on a DVR schedule and younger viewers simply aren’t tuning in the way they used to. The real test will come tonight and in the ensuing weeks.

It took only a few minutes for Conan’s letter to overtake Twitter. Six of the ten top trending items on Twitter right now are Conan O’Brien, Team Conan, teamconan m, NBC, Jay Leno and Tonight Show. Now if all those people siding with Conan actually start watching his show, this story might have a very different ending. NBC may have royally botched the PR of their slot effort, but they have one thing coming tonight that could be cold comfort — a rapt audience, as people tune in (or DVR) Conan’s show to see how he handles his own news in tonight’s monologue.

Image: Mike Mitchell