NBC is striking back at Conan O'Brien, with sports czar Dick Ebersol blasting the soon-to-be ex-"Tonight Show" host as "chicken-hearted and gutless" and chalking up the current situation as "an astounding failure by Conan."
Speaking to author/reporter Bill Carter for a story in Friday's New York Times -- and, most likely, a chapter in Carter's upcoming follow-up to "The Late Shift" -- Ebersol tries to make the case that NBC's decision to dump O'Brien after barely a half-year on the job was a justifiable reaction to the show's ratings.
He also complains that the reason O'Brien's numbers are down is because O'Brien didn't listen to Ebersol's suggestions for how to broaden his appeal upon taking over "Tonight."
"We bet on the wrong guy," Ebersol said.
It wasn't immediately clear whether Ebersol sought out the permission of his boss, Jeff Zucker, before talking to Carter. But industry insiders and people inside the O'Brien camp had no doubt that Ebersol's point of view matched that of Zucker's.
As negotiations to settle out O'Brien's deal continued Thursday, Ebersol's remarks had the potential to enflame an already volatile negotiation. "It doesn't help," said someone close to the O'Brien team.
That said, there were no signs that Ebersol's bile would derail talks. There's been a hope all week long that things could be settled by Friday, and insiders said still that remains a possibility.
As for the specifics of Ebersol's venomous comments:
--The executive said he had met with O'Brien before he took over "Tonight" to convey the importance of changing his act to appeal to middle-of-the-road tastes. “I like Conan enormously personally. He was just stubborn about not being willing to broaden the appeal of his show," Ebersol said.
Ironically, Ebersol was originally a big backer of David Letterman back when NBC was trying to decide whether to install Leno or Letterman as Johnny Carson's replacement.
The rap on Letterman at time was that he was too "edgy" for 11:30 and too "stubborn" to change.
One person sympathetic to O'Brien's cause said that Ebersol's unhappiness with the creative shape of O'Brien's "Tonight Show" isn't a shocker. In addition to being close to Leno, Ebersol has never really gotten O'Brien's appeal. "It's a generational thing," this person said of Ebersol, who turns 63 this summer.
--Ebersol complained about Conan's ratings declines, suggesting that the collapse of NBC's primetime lineup, the disappointing numbers for "The Jay Leno Show" and the resulting cratering of local news ratings shouldn't have prevented Conan from beating Letterman.
In fact, O'Brien's "Tonight Show" is currently tied in the ratings with Letterman among adults 18-49, the metric that matters most, according to NBC.
O'Brien's down from the Leno era in the adults 18-49, losing Leno's 15 percent advantage over Letterman. But local news numbers have dropped between 20 and 30 percent since Leno shifted to 10, which means O'Brien is actually not dropping as much as his lead-in.
Ebersol also made no mention of the fact that for his first 18 months on the air, Leno was trounced by Letterman in the rating -- pulling ahead only after "ER" and NBC's powerhouse primetime performance lifted all boats on the Peacock ocean.
--Ebersol interpreted O'Brien's jokes about the late-night situation as a personal attack on Leno and suggested O'Brien was wrong to do so.
“Jeff (Zucker) and I are big boys,” Ebersol said. “When we do something big in the public forum and it doesn’t succeed, we know we’ll be the butt of criticism. But you don’t personally attack someone who hasn’t done anything.”
He also dismissed both O'Brien and his late-night peers David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson for making fun of Leno.
“They’re just striking out at Jay. It seems like professional jealousy," he said.