In Jay Leno’s Defense… Again!
I know, I know… I already wrote a post in defense of Jay Leno, but after seeing him on Oprah (1-28-2010) I could not help myself. So, I am revisiting, updating, and trimming my original post in defense of Jay Leno… again!
Let’s face it, there are much more important issues in the world (like Haiti, the wars, the economy, healthcare, foreclosures…) than what is going on in “late night” at NBC, but there are some basic principles of fairness and honesty, which beg defending always. And so I have found myself distracted by this dysfunctional family of late-night programming and perplexed by the organized groups of people on Facebook and across America in support of Conan, a man who has morphed into some sort of little-man-done-wrong by the big bad corporate network, NBC, and the “backstabbing” boogey man, Jay Leno. Seriously?
Apparently so, as confirmed by a poll on Oprah’s website, in fact, 96% of those responding to the poll were in support of Conan, as shown during Oprah’s interview with Jay Leno.
Hmm… At first, it seemed like a family squabble that would soon get worked out. However, night after night the squabbling got worse, the attacks got personal, and then Conan’s anger turned toward an easy scapegoat, Jay Leno, the bad man who was trying to take the Tonight Show away from him.
Revisionist history may be a necessary and unforgiveable evil for those who are on the wrong side of history, but in this case, it is not ancient history and I am surprised that somehow the facts, only a few years old, have gotten lost or intentionally forgotten. In my memory of events, back to when Leno got the Tonight Show over David Letterman and on to the more recent forced abdication of the Tonight Show to Conan, it is clear that the facts and history are on Jay Leno’s side.
From where I sit, I see a nice man, from an older generation, who works very hard, has no manager or agent, negotiates with a handshake, regularly does free comedy shows for unemployed auto workers in Detroit, and has been married to the same woman for 30 years. This man, in 2004, was asked to give up, in five years, his #1-rated Tonight Show. Why? Because Conan O’Brien wanted a guarantee that he would get the Tonight Show or he would go to another network. So, Jay Leno, agreed to walk away from his dream job, and he did just that in May 2009.
Who took whose job away?
In 2004, when NBC asked Jay Leno to give up his #1-rated Tonight Show and give it to Conan, Leno asked to be released from his contract, which NBC refused to do. Since he was still under contract to NBC when he handed the Tonight Show to Conan, Leno had no choice but to do the prime time show, The Jay Leno Show, which NBC insisted would succeed, but Leno himself did not think would work. In the end, all he insisted on was that he be able to take his staff with him so that they would not lose their jobs.
Yes, he sounds positively evil, doesn’t he?
For those of you with short-term memory loss, let’s review the facts… again.
- Jay Leno’s Tonight Show was #1 in the ratings for most of the seventeen years he hosted the show… 1992-1995 #2, 1995-2009 #1!
- After 12 years of #1 ratings, in 2004, Jay Leno was asked to give up the Tonight Show because Conan O’Brien wanted the Tonight Show, threatening to leave NBC if he did not get it, and NBC did not want to lose Conan.
- Jay Leno agreed to walk away from his #1 rated Tonight Show so that NBC would not lose Conan, asking only to be released from his contract which NBC refused to do.
- Conan O’Brien, after seven months on the air, took the Tonight Show from #1 to #3 , sometimes #4 – his ratings dropped by 49%. And for the first time in The Tonight Show franchise history the show was going to lose money under Conan O’Brien. (Conan’s ratings only picked up in the last two weeks of the controversy between him, NBC & Jay Leno – I guess everyone likes a good fight?)
- Jay Leno’s new prime time show, The Jay Leno Show, actually increased its numbers from what he had on the #1-rated Tonight Show, losing only 14% of its initial ratings, even though he was up against all the other networks’ premier prime time shows.
- Jay Leno did not ask to give up his Tonight Show to Conan,…
did not ask to be put on prime time,…
did not ask to be removed from prime time after only 4 months,…
did not ask to be moved back to the 11:30 p.m. time slot,…
did ask and was refused, for the second time, to be released from his contract,…
did not ask to have his show cut from a one hour show to a 30 minute show,…
did not ask to have Conan’s Tonight Show bumped to 12:05 a.m.,…
did not ask Conan to leave the Tonight Show,…
and did not ask to have the Tonight Show back.
It is beyond me, how Jay Leno became the villain in all of this. Jay Leno is the man who went along with everything his employer asked of him, a traditional company man, who was asked to step aside to allow the younger, hipper, more valued employee, Conan, to take his job, even though Leno did his job exceptionally well. After all, how much better could he have done than #1? Conan is the guy who threatened NBC with walking unless he got Jay Leno’s job. That is a fact. NBC is the mis-managed network who allowed themselves to be coerced, and then changed their minds, and then let Leno take the heat without defense, explanation, or admission of fault for weeks.
Conan took the flagship #1-rated Tonight Show and brought it to its knees. As a spoiled child might, he refused to take responsibility for the dramatic Tonight Show ratings drop of 49%; he refused to adjust his type of humor to appeal to the demographics who traditionally watch the Tonight Show; he refused to be moved back to a time slot where his younger/hipper viewers reside in late night, even though he was going to keep hosting the Tonight Show. He refused to adjust or to negotiate even though his staff, who had to relocate their lives from New York to California, now would be left unemployed.
Thirty minutes – Conan refused to move back thirty minutes, in contrast to everything Jay Leno gave up, thirty minutes seems reasonable. It did not mean that it would be forever. I suspect NBC was going to use Jay Leno’s ability to get a #1-rating in the 11:30 p.m. time slot to help Conan pick up his numbers, and then, quite probably, they would have unceremoniously discarded their older, less hip, more traditional, nice guy, who’ll-go-along-with-anything employee, Jay Leno. (Thank you, Jay, and don’t let the door hit you on the butt.)
My disappointment in Conan began with his hypocrisy in complaining that Jay Leno was taking his job when he is the one who demanded to take Jay Leno’s job five years ago. I was disappointed and surprised that he was unwilling to move back 30 minutes to help his numbers pick up, to allow his staff to keep their jobs, and to continue to host the Tonight Show, a dream job. Let’s not forget, Conan had NBC fire Jay Leno from the Tonight Show, back in 2004, so that he could take over the Tonight Show in 2009, and, after all that, he walks away because he had to start 30 minutes later.
Dude, your ratings dropped by 49%, the Tonight Show was losing money! It’s not personal, it’s business!
In the midst of negotiating a $45 million buy-out to leave NBC, I was most disappointed watching this grown child-man whine about himself when the world was focused on Haiti’s relief efforts and when we have unprecedented numbers of people in this country who are unemployed as they lose their homes and healthcare. Instead, we continued to watch this child-man throw a temper-tantrum because he did not get his way, in every way, this time.
For those of you who have started and joined these Facebook groups and were out protesting on the streets the injustice done to Conan, assuming you were not organized by Conan’s PR people, there is no need to feel sorry for Conan. He negotiated a $45 million buy-out and in September 2010 he can start with a new show! I think he’ll be okay. If you need to protest something, you don’t need to look too far to find a plethora of issues, causes, and people who truly need help.
Martie Hevia (c) 2010 – All Rights Reserved
One Conan defender wrote to tell me that this blog post inaccurate, pointing out that Conan’s ratings increased by 27% over his ratings the year before. This is true, however, the year before, he was hosting the Late Show, not the Tonight Show. The Late Show has a much smaller audience, perhaps, in part, because it is on much later, while the Tonight Show has a much larger audience. So, comparing Conan’s ratings as host of the Tonight Show to his ratings as host of the Late Show the year before has little to do with the fact that the Tonight Show ratings, as a show, decreased by 49% under Conan. It also does not change the fact that it was Conan O’Brien who took the Tonight Show away from Jay Leno, not the other way around – that was the bigger point in all of this. But, perhaps we can agree to disagree and leave it there. Thanks for reading!
Post Script 2:
Thanks to Tania (@superfan33) for sharing these articles:
- The War for Late Night: Leno wasn’t always the bad guy in ‘Tonight Show’ battle | New York Post | October 16, 2010
- The Unsocial Network: The War for Late Night – Excerpt | Vanity Fair | December 2010
- Conan the Solipsist: The comedian’s slide into self-righteousness is anything but funny | The New Republic | December 3, 2010
Martie Hevia (c) 2010 – All Rights Reserved