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Presenter gives a new twist to 'Tonight' saga

Conan O'Brien protests over NBC plan to move show to after midnight

Conan O'Brien has raised the stakes in a deepening row over the future of American late-night television, saying he refuses to participate in the "destruction" of one of America's most prestigious TV programmes, by publicly rejecting a plan to move his chat-show to a graveyard slot.

The comedian, who recently became only the fifth host of The Tonight Show in its 55-year history, released a forthright statement yesterday condemning a controversial plan by his employer, NBC, to rearrange their schedule to accommodate the rival show of his predecessor, Jay Leno. Under the intended plan, announced last week, Leno's current programme would surrender its prime-time slot – where it failed to attract sufficient audiences or advertising revenue after its pre-Christmas launch – and move to 11.35pm, pushing O'Brien's nightly show back half an hour to midnight.

That represented an inconvenience to Leno – who is paid an estimated annual salary of $27m (£16.85m) and last week joked about defecting to a rival network – and a public snub to O'Brien, whose stewardship of the cultural institution that is Tonight is a critical success, but has seen a rapid decline in viewers. "NBC has decided to react to their terrible difficulties in prime-time by making a change in their long-established late-night schedule," said O'Brien yesterday.

"For 60 years, the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying [it] into the next day to accommodate another comedy programme will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting."

Saying he requires more than seven months he has been in the job to build a loyal audience, O'Brien added: "It was my mistaken belief that, like my predecessor, I would have some time, and just as important, some degree of ratings support from the prime-time scheudule. My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The Tonight Show," he added. "But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction."

Mr O'Brien stopped short of resigning in the statement, saying that he currently has "no offer" from an alternative employer and "I honestly have no idea what happens next". But the tone of his comments will only add to speculation that he may be poised to jump ship to Rupert Murdoch's Fox.