NBC Exec Rips Conan as “Chicken-Hearted”

Ebersol says O'Brien's digs at Leno below the belt

NBC Universal, Inc.

NBC's war with Conan O'Brien went to a new level as longtime network exec Dick Ebersol called the "Tonight Show" host "chicken-hearted" and pronounced his show an "astounding failure" in an interview with The New York Times.

O'Brien has blasted the network over plans to move him out of his timeslot and possibly off the air completely after the show's ratings plummeted in his seven months as host. Ebersol said O'Brien's pointed digs at Jay Leno, who will reclaim the 11:35 p.m. slot, showed a lack of courage. For the last four months, Leno's show has aired at 10 p.m., but its ratings have lagged.

It was “chicken-hearted and gutless to blame a guy you couldn’t beat in the ratings,” griped Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports and a close associate of the network's boss, Jeff Zucker. “What this is really all about is an astounding failure by Conan.”

O'Brien whose "Tonight Show" ratings fell dramatically from levels he inherited from Leno, sniped on his show Wednesday that hosting the show was a lifelong dream, and achieving it showed that in America one can do anything "unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too."

The network has announced that Leno will move back to 11:35 p.m., but it is not clear what will happen with O'Brien. NBC reportedly wanted him to move his show to 12:05 a.m., but O'Brien flatly refused.

Entertainment Weekly reported that NBC and O'Brien could resolve the matter in the next day or two, with Leno returning as host of "The Tonight Show." A source told EW that O'Brien's leverage in refusing to move his show is nil because his contract provided no guarantees of a particular timeslot.

“We would like to see it resolved by the weekend,” said the source, who did not want to be identified by name because of the heightened sensitivity surrounding the meetings. “It’s possible.”

EW speculated that O'Brien would receive a contract settlement and leave NBC.

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