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Leno gives his side of 'Tonight Show' intrigue

The NBC host describes how he left 'Tonight' and walked into a prime-time disaster.

January 19, 2010|By Meg James
  • Jay Leno says he warned NBC executives that a move to prime time wasn't a good idea.
Jay Leno says he warned NBC executives that a move to prime time wasn't… (Matt Sayles, Associated…)

After days of being portrayed as the bad guy, Jay Leno came out swinging on his show Monday and provided a detailed chronology of NBC's bumbling behind-the-scenes maneuvers that sparked the talk-show host tug-of-war engulfing the network.

In an unusual departure from his typical banter, Leno described how NBC several years ago concocted a plan to push him out while he was still No. 1. He said he was skeptical that NBC's solution of a prime-time show would work. It "didn't seem like a good idea at the time," he said, though he ultimately went along.

Leno told the audience that he might soon be back in his old time slot at 11:35 p.m., hinting that an announcement could come today.

Leno's defense came at the end of another bruising day for NBC. More than 125 people rallied in the rain outside Universal Studios in support of Conan O'Brien, the host of "The Tonight Show." At one point, a man dressed as Leno was mock punched in the gut by a man sporting a red wig to represent O'Brien. There were also protests in New York, Chicago and Seattle.

O'Brien and his lawyers have spent the last five days negotiating a severance deal said to be valued at nearly $40 million that would bring an abrupt end to his nearly 20-year NBC career and his seven-month stint as host of "The Tonight Show." The sum includes compensation for Executive Producer Jeff Ross and other top staff members.

O'Brien's last show is expected to be Friday. O'Brien, in his Monday night monologue, alluded that his exit pact would not allow him to criticize NBC. But he still took a jab at the network.

"At the Golden Globes, Julia Roberts said that NBC was in the toilet," O'Brien said. "NBC was upset, and toilets were furious."

At CBS, David Letterman continued to revel in NBC's troubles, cracking in his "Late Show" monologue Monday that there had been a development on the CBS show "Medium," which is about a woman who talks to the dead: "This week, Johnny Carson calls up the medium and he asks her, 'What the hell is going on with 'The Tonight Show'?"

In his remarks, Leno sought to dispel the notion that he and O'Brien were sparring. He called O'Brien "a nice guy" but said that "The Tonight Show" under O'Brien did not generate sufficient ratings. Neither did his own prime-time show, Leno conceded.

"This is all business. If you don't get the ratings they take you off the air," Leno said.

NBC, which released Leno's remarks, declined to comment.

Leno's airing of NBC's dirty laundry could exacerbate the firestorm that exploded Jan. 7 when news leaked that NBC planned to cancel Leno's prime-time program. The network made that decision to mollify affiliate stations that were threatening to preempt Leno's 10 p.m. show.

Leno said that in 2008, NBC was planning to send him into retirement eight months before his contract expired. When he asked to be released, Leno said, NBC refused.

"They said, 'We want to keep you here.' . . . They said, 'How about prime-time?' I said, 'That will never work,' " Leno said. But he said top network executives told him: "No, no, we want to put you on at 10. We have done focus groups. People will love you at 10. Look at these studies showing Jay's chin at 10. People will go crazy."

NBC said it would "guarantee" him two years on the air, Leno said. His prime-time show launched in September.

"Four months go by, we don't make it," Leno said. At the same time, ratings for O'Brien's "Tonight Show" were falling. NBC, Leno said, had hoped that Leno's prime-time show would help lift O'Brien's ratings.

"Well, we didn't help him any, OK," Leno said.

Nearly two weeks ago, Leno said, NBC executives visited again to say they were pulling the plug on his 10 p.m. show, telling him: "This show isn't working. We want to let you go."

Leno said he again asked to be released from his contract. They told him he was still "a valuable asset to this company. How valuable can I be? You fired me twice."

That's when NBC offered him a half-hour show at 11:35, Leno said.

"I'm not crazy about doing a half-hour, but OK. What do you want to do with Conan?" Leno recalled the conversation with NBC. They said, "We'll put him on at midnight, or 12:05." Leno said he asked the network: "You think Conan will go for that?"

The network executives, according to Leno, said: "Yes, yes." That brought hoots of laughter from the audience.

But O'Brien didn't go along with NBC's plans.

"They come back to me and they say if he decides to walk and doesn't want to do it, do you want the show back? I go, 'Yeah, I'll take the show back,' " Leno said. "That's pretty much where we are."

meg.james@latimes.com

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