Jay Leno tells his side of the story
By GREG HERNANDEZ
With his good guy image taking a beating, Jay Leno used his monologue on Monday to tell his side of the story in the very public saga involving him, Conan O’Brien and the future of NBC’s “Tonight Show” franchise.
He downplayed any ill will between he and O’Brien despite needling that has taken place during their respective monologues in recent days.
“Through all of this, Conan O’Brien has been a gentleman,” Leno told the audience. “He’s a good guy. i have no animosity towards him. This is business. If you don’t get the ratings, they take you off the air.”
Leno has come off to some as a villain in the late night debacle that began when NBC replaced him as host of “The Tonight Show” last June and gave him a prime time show five nights a week. “The Jay Leno Show” has been a ratings disaster while “Tonight” under O’Brien has about half as many viewers as it did under Leno. The network, which has canceled Leno’s prime time show, now wants Leno back in the 11:35 p.m. time slot that he dominated for 15 years.
O’Brien did not want to move “Tonight” to 12:05 a.m. and is close to finalizing a settlement deal to leave the network.
Leno said he had agreed to do a 30 minute show at 11:35 p.m. then to be followed by O’Brien: “[The network] comes back to me and they say if [Conan] 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. If that’s what he wants to do. This way, we keep our people working, fine. So that’s pretty much where we are. It looks like we might be back at 11:30, I’m not sure. I don’t know.”
Leno ruled the late night ratings since taking over “The Tonight Show” from Johnny Carson in 1992 after being selected for the gig over David Letterman who then defected to CBS where he remains. He told the audience Monday that when the network approached him in 2004 saying they wanted to give O’Brien the franchise in 2009, Leno told them: “I’ve been number one for 12 years … How about until I fall to number two, then you fire me?”
Leno never did fall to number two but NBC replaced him anyway. He said he was skeptical of the prime time experiment but agreed to it after he was told he could keep his 175-member staff and was guaranteed two years on the air.
“Four months go by, we don’t make it,” he said. “Meanwhile, Conan’s show during the summer, we’re not on, was not doing well. The great hope was that we would help him. Well, we didn’t help him any, okay.”
When he was told by the network that “The Jay Leno Show” wasn’t working, the host said he asked to be let out of his contract. But he was told he was still too valuable to the network.
Leno told the audience his question to NBC was: “How valuable can I be? You fired me twice. How valuable can I be?”
He said the network was confident O’Brien would agree to move to the later time slot and that they could rebuild their late night dominance.