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No More Waffling: NBC Needs to Cut Conan Loose

The network doesn’t want to lose Leno. Fine. But now it needs to stop playing games with O’Brien.

Conan O’Brien’s highly personal statement Tuesday isn’t a legal move. It’s a moral declaration, people who know O’Brien said.

O’Brien’s camp isn’t trying to parse words or timeslots. They haven’t begun negotiations with outside companies.

And the statement he issued wasn’t put together by a team of publicists or agents or managers, those familiar with the decision to do so told TheWrap.

"This was all from Conan," a source said.

Indeed, it’s vintage O’Brien — a comedy geek, a student of television who reveres tradition even as he seeks nightly to subvert it through his comedy.

Much of what’s been reported in recent days has been about money and ego and politics.

Put simply, Conan O’Brien right now doesn’t give a damn about money.

As his words make clear, O’Brien is focused on legacy — both of "The Tonight Show" and his own.

He sees the madness of NBC’s proposal, and maybe even the cynicism behind it. And he’s calling bulls—.

Jeff Gaspin may just be trying to make the best out of a bad situation he inherited. But in his heart, he had to know O’Brien would never accept 12:05 — and that even offering it was something of an insult.

Jeff Zucker, supposedly a friend of O’Brien and his producer Jeff Ross, certainly knew it.

And maybe that’s why they put this out there. NBC, you see, made its choice: It doesn’t want to lose Jay Leno, even if it means ruining O’Brien or "Tonight."

It’s time for the network to quit playing contract games — or quit trying to have its cake and eat it, too,

If NBC has decided it would rather have Leno on NBC rather than Conan, fine. Say so. Move on.

And let O’Brien move on, too. 

POSTSCRIPT (added 4:15 p.m. CST): There is, of course, one more option for NBC. It could decide to honor Conan’s deal and keep him as host of "The Tonight Show" — at 11:35 p.m.  As for Leno, NBC could either figure out something else for him to do, or let him go instead.

That’s almost certainly wishful thinking. But if NBC wants to start thinking in the long term, about preserving a strong late-night brand for another 15 years instead of squeezing another five years from Leno, it would give Conan what he wants.

As much as I’d like to see that happen, it’s probably wishful thinking.

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