Jay Leno, NBC, and Conan: A History of False Promises, Treachery and DoublespeakS

It's surprising that Jay would usurp Conan O'Brien like he is. Because not only has he gone on record saying he has total faith in Conan, but NBC once tried to screw over Jay just like they're doing to Conan.

Jay Leno almost lost The Tonight Show to David Letterman at one point. In a 1992 New York Times article, Leno completely lashed-out at NBC executives for going back on their word. After Leno's show started to build an audience, NBC almost handed over the keys of The Tonight Show to Letterman.

Mr. Leno said he would "obviously leave NBC immediately" if the network decided to give the "Tonight" show to Mr. Letterman. He said he would absolutely refuse to do a show in the 12:30 A.M. spot now occupied by Mr. Letterman's show, "Late Night," and would indeed consider creating the same problem for NBC that Mr. Letterman's proposed deal with CBS caused.

So Jay wouldn't just get kicked off of The Tonight Show, NBC would also move him back to 12:30. Leno is justifiably outraged. So what does he do? Goes and does the same exact thing to Conan 17 years later. It's hard to imagine that this hasn't crept up into the back of Jay's head throughout this whole debacle.

Jay goes on to say that he simply doesn't understand NBC's reasoning. He gets ratings, his ratings are climbing, why should he be punished?

I've always said, "Just judge me by my performance. I've done stand-up comedy for a lot of years. When I go out and see a full house of 3,000 people, I know I'm making money for somebody. If I see only 1,200 people and the house is half-full, I know I've got to do another show to make it up to the guy. But the affiliates, the advertisers, they're all happy."

A completely valid argument. Hat-tip to Jay for putting NBC in their place. But if this is true, shouldn't the opposite be true as well? If your ratings are terrible, resulting in a mass exodus of viewership, shouldn't one be punished? Not in 2010! Instead, The Jay Leno Show show receives ratings that were lower than the lowest of expectation. This results in Conan's (while his ratings are also low) punishment, not Jay's. Jay is rewarded with his new toy (which was his old toy): The Tonight Show. After all is said and done with this Late Night shake-up, it's hard to believe that Leno's ratings will be as high the second time around.

But worse in this whole situation is NBC. Doesn't Jeff Zucker know what happened on his own network? NBC eventually dodged the bullet by keeping Jay and giving Letterman no other option other than to skedaddle to another network. NBC kept Jay as the host of The Tonight Show, didn't shake things up, and his ratings thrived for years.

Perhaps they're looking at the bigger picture? Perhaps they know something we don't? Maybe it's that in the grand scheme of things, when people look back on this whole mess, Conan will only be a blip on the radar. Because the fact remains that Conan was on for less than a year, and in that year, he failed. Who didn't fail on Late Night? Leno! He's a sure thing! Well, exactly why is he a sure thing, NBC? Maybe because you gave him the opportunity to slowly gain an audience by not giving up on him? The lack of foresight is baffling.

But this isn't the only example of backstabbing and false praise. No, Jay was on Tavis Smiley only last year discussing Conan's ratings woes. He cites himself as an example that nobody should worry. A successful show must be nurtured. It takes time, energy, patience, and—here's that word again—foresight, in order to thrive.

And most recently, Jay sings high praise when Conan is about to make the transition from Late Night to The Tonight Show. Even though Jay absolutely had to praise Conan, he actually sounds somewhat genuine in his sentiments. It sounds nothing like a person who would turn around and backstab someone seven months later because their own show failed.

Obviously, NBC has their own reasons for making their decisions. Sure, it's been a PR nightmare, but they have their reasons. They dodged a bullet in '92, a bullet that they could have dodged again. They are simply choosing not to.

New York Times


The Jay Leno Show

The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien

Tavis Smiley