So, I saw Jay Leno on Oprah’s show. I’ve also been reading some of the blogosphere commentary afterward. And, frankly, I think it’s time to say a few words in Leno’s defense — because, in my view, this guy is guilty of nothing more than being perceived as less cool than Conan O’Brien (and David Letterman) for that matter.
Let’s dissect what exactly happened here — from the very beginning.
When Johnny Carson retired in 1992, NBC had a choice to make. Leno and Letterman both were both legitimate candidates to succeed the late-night king. Leno had been serving as Carson’s permanent guest host and getting strong ratings. If I’m not mistaken (and I don’t think I am), his ascending ratings were as high as Carson’s (sometimes higher). That’s not a crime, by the way.
Letterman, on the other hand, was Carson’s chosen successor — and was having success on "Late Night" (which at the time was produced by Carson’s production company). NBC decided that the Leno-Letterman combo was working — and, essentially, thought Leno was a better fit for the 11:30 PM time slot. Leno didn’t “steal” Letterman’s job.
The bosses made a decision. Letterman took his gig elsewhere – and, eventually, proved the boss’ decision correct.
Conan O’Brien, an unknown "Saturday Night Live" writer, is plucked from obscurity and given the opportunity of a lifetime — hosting "Late Night." At first the show (and its ratings) are shaky, but the network sticks with him through the tough times (a gesture he didn’t return). Eventually, the show is a ratings and creative success. And Leno’s lead-in didn’t hurt.
2004. Conan’s popularity is on the rise, and his contract is running out. But Jay is still Number One at 11:30. Conan is starting to make noises about possibly jumping to another network. He is, after all, the cool one. And NBC doesn’t want to lose him. So, they come up with the brilliant idea of asking Jay to agree to leave in five years — in effect canceling him in slow motion. Conan appears unconcerned about forcing Leno out of his job. Leno shouldn’t have agreed to go along — but that hardly makes him Darth Vader.
2009. As agreed, Leno prepares to turn over the keys to "The Tonight Show" to Conan. But he’s still Number One — and NBC is getting nervous. Plagued with a disastrous prime time line-up (which Jay regularly overcame), somebody comes up with another brilliant idea. How about stripping Jay in the 10 p.m. timeslot. Rather than switch networks and compete with O’Brien, Leno opts to accept the offer (again, leading with his chin maybe, but not evil).
2010. The bottom falls out and all hell breaks loose. Conan is getting about half the ratings Leno was on "The Tonight Show" and Leno (though meeting network ratings projections) is not giving the affiliates the lead-in they need for their newscasts. His show is canceled — but, afraid of losing him to a competitor, NBC comes up with yet another brilliant idea.
They offer Leno a half-hour show at 11:35 and Conan "The Tonight Show" (but a half hour later). The "Tonight Show" would still be an hour long.
Leno, perhaps out of some concern for his 175 person staff, accepts the degradation of having his show cut by a half hour. St. Conan throws a dignified and celebrated fit and refuses to move his show back a half hour. The theory being that at 12:05, "The Tonight Show" becomes "The Tomorrow Show."
But, of course, following that logic, "Late Night" should have been called "Early Morning."
The bottom line is that, if anyone was pushed out of a job unfairly, it was Leno. Conan was never forced out. Actually, he did the forcing.