Could Leno have stepped down?

This is a reply to a comment in a thread that seems to be more about the new Tonight Show, rather than the controversy. I’d have put it in the omnibus thread, but it’s dadblasted long. (I invite the mods to merge if they wish, though.)

From what I can tell, Leno didn’t want the Prime Time show in the first place. NBC was unwilling to buy him out of his contract in order to give Conan the show, and Leno was unwilling to force the issue like Conan did. The idea was that, with the prime time show, even if it didn’t work out, was so cheap that NBC would still make some money off of it.And Leno could ride out the rest of his contract.

The problem was the affiliates. Both shows had much lower ratings than their predecessors in that time slot. This meant that advertisers weren’t willing to spend as much to buy commercials. With local commercials, this probably wasn’t a big factor, but affiliates also get a share of the national commercials. NBC’s share was large enough to keep it afloat (as they planned), but the affiliates did not think it was enough for them. They had been pushing and pushing to get the two shows taken off the air, and NBC finally caved.

So now we have two shows that can no longer exist. You’re probably right that NBC might have been able to just axe Jay, and keep Conan, and the affiliates would have given them more time. The problem is that axing Jay would still cost $150 million, while axing Conan would only cost $40 million. Of course Jay could have voluntarily stepped down, negotiating for a lower settlement than Conan’s contract. But, if he didn’t, there’s no way NBC would have kept Conan. It doesn’t matter at which point he stepped down.

NETA: Looks like I didn’t make it back in time to link the omnibus thread I was referring to.

That was pretty much my understanding of the situation too. My impression is that Leno never wanted to move from the Tonight Show at all. All considerations of talent aside, I do not see him as the asshole here. I am not saying that Conan is either. The problem was caused by the execs who imagined Conan’s shtick would work for the 11.30 audience, and that Jay’s would work for the 10.00 one. Wrong on both counts (as I suspect Jay knew all along, but Conan clearly didn’t).

Frankly, I always thought Letterman was much better suited to the later spot too. He was a lot funnier and edgier in his NBC days.

What was Leno’s contract? Remember he took a few minutes on his show 5-6 years ago to tell everyone that he and the NBC brass decided he would go do other things in 5 years and turn the Tonight Show over to Conan. I’ve only heard audio of it but I’m pretty sure it’s on Youtube. I’ve never been interested in this whole thing, but I thought he was just doing what was decided years ago, then did a 180 when it didn’t work.

I may be wrong on some points but what I remember hearing or reading was that Jay did not want to agree to leaving 5 years ago but was forced to accept the agreement by NBC. Apparently NBC had promised The Tonight Show to Conan so he wouldn’t leave NBC (or something along those lines). The point being that Jay says 5 years ago he was pressured to agree to leave.

When the time came to leave he had the best ratings of any late night show. Still NBC wanted to give Conan a shot so they came up with the idea to move Jay to 10 PM. He supposedly didn’t think it was a very good idea but agreed to the move which allowed Conan to do the Tonight Show. Remember that Jay was regularly at the top of the ratings at this time. When Conan took over the ratings understandably suffered. That’s pretty much SOP for changes in late night and you need to allow time for the audience to grow again.

So months go by and both shows are struggling in the ratings. Jay says that NBC came to him and said that they wanted to move Conan’s start back 30 minutes and would Jay like to do a 30 minute version of his show as a lead in to Conan. Jay says he was surprised by the offer and when asked if Conan had really agreed to that was told basically told yes. So Jay said OK.

NBC then offered that to Conan (moving the start back 30 minutes) and Conan basically said that was unacceptable and would rather leave than screw with the starting time slot of “The Tonight Show”. I guess NBC jumped on that thinking they could let him go and just bring Jay back, hopefully with his previous ratings. So they went to Jay and told him since Conan is leaving would he like to just have the show back. Jay said yes.

So that’s kind of the basics as far as I know. NBC told Jay that Conan was out anyway. If Jay did not come back they would just find another host so he decided he would go back to doing the show he loves and had been very successful with. Some people will argue that this screwed Conan but if we believe Jay’s side of the story, that Conan was on the way out anyway, than I think Jay did the right thing.

I don’t watch late night TV, and my favorite talking heads are Stewart and Colbert, but my understanding is that, even then, Jay didn’t want to step down, but did it to appease NBC, who wanted to keep Conan.

Personally, I think this whole thing’s overblown. Conan bombed and Jay is just taking back what he never wanted to give up. The NBC execs are the people to mock here, not Leno.

A gist of the happenings as I understand it:

In 2004, Leno’s at the Tonight Show, Conan’s at Late night; contracts for both are soon to expire, and hence set for negotiation. Conan hints to NBC that others are interested in him; NBC thinks Leno’s getting old and won’t stay on top for very long. So Leno’s asked to retire from Tonight Show after 5 years, and Conan’s crowned the heir apparent. Come 2008, NBC is not doing too well, in primetime, they’re last among the Big 4. The Tonight Show is one of their big earners and they’re set to lose Jay when he’s done. So they decide to retire Jay a few months early and pass on to Conan.Since they’ll have 7 months left on their contract with Jay, he can’t work elsewhere. He asks to be released from the contract. NBC says No, and floats him the 10PM talk show offer. He agrees. NBC has low expectations of this new show. It won’t draw in as many viewers, but it’s cheaper to make, hence still be profitable. The Jay Leno show debuts in September, 3 months after Conan’s Tonight, settles down to viewership levels on the cusp of profitability. But those levels are bad news for the affiliates (not for parent NBC). The affiliates put pressure on NBC. NBC can’t afford to let go of Jay because of a huge payout clause, so they try to improvise with the 11:30 Leno half hour and 12 AM Tonight Show and come up FAIL. Now, it’s cheaper to let go of Conan. So that’s what they do.

I think Conan overreached in 2004; NBC came up with a bad idea in the 10PM talk show; Leno is a jerk for agreeing to the 11:35 half-hour but not for the 10PM FAIL. Personally, Conan’s better suited for the 12:30 style. But it seems he dreamt of hosting the Tonight Show. And that wish came true.

I like Conan. I find Jay unwatchable. What astonishes me is that Conan positioned himself as the victim and Jay as the perpetrator, that some great wrong was being done to him. The fact is that Conan completely tanked in the ratings, so badly that the NBC execs didn’t feel that could afford the kind of patience they had shown when Conan tanked in the first year of Late Night.

Conan rallied support by painting Jay as a bully, but the reality is that if even half of the people who joined the “I’m with Coco” rally had actually watched the show, he might have earned a chance to stay.

What’s ironic, of course, is that it was Conan who bumped Jay out, not the other way around.

As to the OP’s factual question, he was under contract to NBC. He could have left, but would have been barred from working anywhere else until the contract expired. He has said in multiple interviews, including with Oprah, that he asked to be let go both when Conan took over the Tonight Show and when the Jay Leno Show was cancelled, and both times NBC refused.

Wow! Things are always more complicated than they seem!

Well I am glad to know that Jay isn’t the asshole this current situation made him appear to be. I have to mention the incredible irony that Jay got the short end because NBC made a deal with Conan, since Dave got it 20 years ago when Leno (actually, his evil, insane manager) made the deal guaranteeing him Tonight!

I’m still a little confused. Did Jay agree to retire in 5 years? If he had refused would NBC have not renewed Jay’s contract just to keep Conan from leaving? Didn’t Tonight make considerably more money than Late Night and therefore give Leno much more clout than Conan?

Leno’s shtick worked about as well as expected. The problem is, the local affiliates weren’t willing to accept a cheaper but lower rating show.

But I agree, Conan was the wrong choice for the 11:30 Tonite Show fans.

NBC also offered Leno the 10 slot to keep him from going to ABC at 11:35. They knew he wanted to keep doing a show and ABC was most likely were he was going to end up. They have Nightline but they would have preferred Leno.

Yes. Back in 2004, NBC executives were willing to let Leno, #1 late night host, go to keep Conan. 2009 comes around and NBC executives realizes it wants to keep both hosts on the network somehow, which led to the recent mess. It’s confusing because NBC has very poor leadership who made a mistake six years ago and kept building on that with more mistakes.

Moving to Cafe Society from GQ.

General Questions Moderator

The idea is that when Jay completely tanked in the ratings for more than three years, Carson wasn’t waiting around in the lobby ready to take his gig back. And, remember, Johnny was forced out too. There’s a little thing called class, something that Mr. Leno is surely lacking.

And Conan’s supporters argue that much of the reason Conan tanked is because of Jay and his failure/leeching of audience at 10. Plus, in addition to what Piker said above, NBC was much more patient with Conan himself when he first took over for Letterman.

You have to remember also that Jay had his own crew to worry about and given the choice, I can’t imagine he would have wanted them to be out of a job in this economy.

The root problem is that NBC didn’t want to lose Conan five years ago. At the time, Conan was hot, and he had offers to move to 11;35 on at least one other network.

So here’s what NBC was worried about - Conan leaves, and they’ve got no one for 12:30. In the meantime, the added competition at 11:30 eats into their ratings. Also, the 12:30 show had always been seen as kind of the ‘farm league’ for the 11:30 show. Jay’s not a spring chicken, and at some point would have to leave because he was losing his ratings, or his health, or his relevancy. If Conan left, they’d have no one to replace Jay when that day came, and they risked destroying their entire late-night lineup.

So the bright boys said, “Wait a minute! What if we offer Conan Jay’s spot in five years? If he knows it’s a guarantee, he’ll stick around. In five years, Jay will be 60, which is pretty old for a late-night host. We’ll retire him, move Conan into the Tonight show, and complete an orderly transition that retains our late-night strength”.

At the time, that seemed fairly reasonable. Leno didn’t like it, but Leno’s a workaholic. So NBC offered to find him something else, and probably promised it would be a step up - primetime, total creative control, whatever. So Jay reluctantly agreed. Conan agreed, because the Tonight Show is every late-night comedian’s dream gig.

Five years later, and Jay’s still #1. At that point, the suits were probably wishing they could undo the whole deal, but contracts had been signed. So, they did the switch, and moved Jay to primetime and Conan to 11:30. And then both shows suffered, the affialiates squawked, and NBC panicked.

Part of the problem was that they foolishly promised Leno a 2 year contract that would keep his show on the air regardless of what its ratings were. So they couldn’t get rid of him, OR cancel his show. So they had to offer him a deal that he was willing to accept. So they offered him essentially the Tonight Show back, under a different name. Conan rightly felt that this would destroy the real Tonight Show, which was always all about being the show you watched to put you to sleep after the news. Put another show there, and the Tonight Show loses its special status. So Conan refuses to move the show, and the rest is history.

Who’s right? You could argue that Conan should never have agreed to a contract that would force Leno out of a show he didn’t want to leave. On the other hand, you could argue that a Tonight Show with a 70 year old Jay Leno as host isn’t the greatest thing for the show either.

You could argue that the original deal five years ago was stupid, but that’s hindsight.

The people who take Jay’s side basically say that he’s a team player, and didn’t push for any of this to happen - he just went where the opportunities are under bad circumstances. Who could blame him?

The people who take Conan’s side say that Conan took a principled stance because he didn’t want to see the Tonight Show ruined, and Jay was willing to damage the institution for his own gain. They felt that Jay should have just told NBC, “Look, that’s Conan’s show now. Find me something else, or buy me out of my contract. But I’m not going to kick him out of the gig or push the Tonight Show back and help destroy an institution that I’ve cared about since I was a kid.”

Also, the people who take Conan’s side said that the idea to move the show back half an hour was basically a sleazy way to get out of their contract. The Tonight Show isn’t about the name - it’s about the 11:35 slot. Take that away, and you take away the Tonight Show, which they were contractually obligated to allow Conan to host.

What’s indisputably true, though, is that Zucker handled the situation very poorly at the end - trying to strong-arm both of them, taking the fight to the press, announcing resolutions before they had been agreed to, etc. He took a difficult situation and made it much worse than it needed to be. They should have announced nothing at all until all sides had come to some kind of an agreement.

Sorry. I was wondering why people were saying it was factual question. Guess I used the wrong tab.

This is the part I’m questioning. From what I hear, the cost to buy Jay out of his contract was set at $150 million, compared to Conan’s $40 million. Of course NBC is going to take the cheaper option. They were within their rights to just cancel the Tonight show, kick out Conan, and replace it with Jay’s show. If the Tonight Show just means the 11:35 slot, then Jay essentially gets the Tonight Show anyway.

There’s another thing I’m confused about: what leverage did the affiliates have? Very nearly every one of them is in a market where all the other stations are taken. So, if they refuse to pick up NBC’s shows, their only alternative is to pick up shows that are already airing in that market. I cannot imagine their customers being happy with that, nor can I imagine they could get any real ratings.

Carson retired at 67 so Leno sticking around until that age is not that unusual.

I guess we disagree. Leno got fired when he was #1 and stepped down pretty quietly. Conan got fired when he was #3 and made a stink about it. Sure, he can complain that the network should have given him more time to bring the ratings up, but who’s to say that would ever have happened. As I said earlier, I love Conan and think Leno is painfully unwatchable. However, I never thought Conan’s shtick would work for the traditional Tonight Show audience.

A year from now, with Leno back on the Tonight Show and Conan filling the 11:30 spot at Fox or ABC, I suspect the ratings will be pretty lopsided and NBC’s business decision will be justified.

But at the end of the day, the way they handle the transition was horrible, starting five years ago. Their the real villain here, not is NBC. They screwed both Leno and Conan, just as they screwed both Carson and Letterman 20 years ago.