2010 Tonight Show conflict
The 2010 Tonight Show conflict was a media and public relations conflict involving American television network NBC and two of its late-night talk show hosts, Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno. Leno, the host of long-running franchise The Tonight Show since 1992, and O'Brien, host of Late Night since 1993, were strong ratings leaders for the network for much of a decade. When O'Brien's contract neared its end and he was courted by other networks in 2001, NBC extended his contract and essentially guaranteed him he would be the fifth host of Tonight. The network neglected to let Leno know that until his contract extension in 2004, when they informed him he would remain host for five more years and then transition the show to O'Brien in 2009. When that time arrived, other networks conveyed interest in Leno; NBC, in an effort to keep both of its late-night stars, offered Leno a nightly primetime show before the local news and O'Brien the Tonight Show.
The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien and The Jay Leno Show failed to attract immediate viewers, and NBC affiliates, seeing their viewership decline, grew restless. NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Zucker, alongside chairman Jeff Gaspin and executive Rick Ludwin, created a remedy: move Leno back to his 11:35 pm start time and bump O'Brien a half-hour later, to 12:05 am. O'Brien and his staff were both disappointed and furious; when it became clear O'Brien would not agree to the proposed changes, the situation grew heated. Though not a breach of either host's contract, the change resulted in a public outcry and public demonstrations largely in support of O'Brien. O'Brien's public statement that he would "not participate in the destruction of The Tonight Show" led to negotiations with NBC for a settlement. O'Brien and his staff received 45 million dollars to walk away from the network, with his final Tonight Show airing January 22, 2010; Leno was reinstated as host that March.
- 1 Background
- 2 Early history
- 3 Ratings
- 4 Conflict
- 5 Reaction and media coverage
- 6 Settlement
- 7 Impact
- 8 Aftermath
- 9 See also
- 10 Citations
- 11 References
In the early 1990s, Johnny Carson, host of NBC's The Tonight Show for nearly 30 years, retired from the program at the age of 66. The network signed Jay Leno, Carson's "permanent guest host", to become the program's fourth host directly following Carson's exit. Carson very clearly viewed the position best for David Letterman, host of his own program, Late Night, which had directly followed Carson's Tonight Show for ten years. NBC tried to appease both stars, but Letterman left the network in a very public conflict that resulted in the creation of his own competing show on CBS, which began in 1993. Late Show with David Letterman, "the first truly substantial competing franchise to Tonight," regularly won in the Nielsen ratings against Leno for two years, "proving for the first time that late-night television—and the profits that came with it—could exist beyond The Tonight Show."
Leno's Tonight Show started rocky; prior to Letterman's move, NBC considered matching CBS's offer to allow Letterman to take over from Leno. Letterman beat Leno for nearly two years until August 1995, when Leno welcomed British actor Hugh Grant, who had recently been arrested for soliciting a prostitute ("What the hell were you thinking?", Leno asked, to applause), to a previously-booked appearance on Tonight. From that point on, Leno slipped past Letterman in the ratings, and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno remained number one for the rest of its run.
NBC chose to continue the Late Night franchise, and at the suggestion of Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, hired Conan O'Brien, a relatively unknown writer for The Simpsons, to take over the time slot beginning in late 1993. Late Night with Conan O'Brien was constantly at risk for cancellation in its early years; at one low point in 1994, NBC threatened to put him on a week-to-week contract. Executives were anxious to replace him with Greg Kinnear, who followed O'Brien with Later at 1:30am. Interns filled empty seats in the audience while affiliates began to inquire about replacement hosts. Things improved for the show slowly (mostly revolving around O'Brien's performance) and by 1996, O'Brien's audience, largely young and male (a coveted demographic), grew steadily and the show began to best competitors in the ratings, which it would continue to do for 15 years.
Contract renewals (2001–04)
Near the turn of the millennium, NBC's late-night lineup—Leno at 11:35, O'Brien at 12:35, and Saturday Night Live on the weekend—remained leaders in the ratings. By 2001, O'Brien's contract at NBC had less than a year left to run, and despite arguably "coming into his own" in the preceding years, the network was reluctant to pay him on the same scale as other late-night hosts. That year, competing network Fox mounted an "extended, comprehensive campaign" to lure O'Brien away from the network, viewing his style suitable for the network's image—"young, hip, somewhat subversive." News Corporation chairman and CEO Peter Chernin pursued O'Brien personally, taking him and executive producer Jeff Ross to dinner on several occasions. Fox's plan involved making O'Brien the network's signature star: his program would begin 30 minutes before Leno and Letterman (the network's local news broadcasts aired earlier than other networks, allowing the head start) and he would receive cross-promotion via its animated division and on Sunday NFL games. Chernin also offered the host seven times his current pay (a jump from $3 million to $21 million). Ross, friends with NBC president and CEO Jeff Zucker, informed him that Fox was aggressively pursuing O'Brien; NBC returned with a more realistic offer, bumping up O'Brien's salary to $8 million and renewing him through 2005.
While many of O'Brien's professional advisors and managers pushed for the Fox deal, O'Brien's desire to one day perhaps take over The Tonight Show after Leno made it a difficult decision (O'Brien, like many baby-boomer comedians, had grown up idolizing Carson's incarnation). Chernin warned O'Brien that waiting around for Leno to leave would be "only an invitation to long-term disappointment, and potentially a path toward undermining a promising career." Nevertheless, O'Brien signed the deal with NBC in March 2002; the contract extended him through 2005 and most significantly contained an "explicit Prince of Wales clause" that solidified the official line of succession: If anything were to happen to Leno, O'Brien would step in. O'Brien's successful hosting job at the 2002 54th Primetime Emmy Awards "sent out the most resounding message yet about his growing strength as a performer," and a year later, NBC broadcast O'Brien's tenth anniversary special in primetime. By the time Leno's contract again came up for renewal, a discussion would be needed regarding the future of The Tonight Show. Facing the prospect of attempting to keep both Leno and O'Brien, Zucker made final call on Leno's deal: "Yes, we’ll extend your deal. But this is your last contract. Time to hand over the keys." The plan would extend Leno four additional years, after which he would give The Tonight Show to O'Brien.
In February 2004, NBC executive Marc Graboff informed Ross of the conversations, and he in turn ran the idea of waiting four more years to O'Brien, who was immediately receptive. Zucker, along with top late-night executive Rick Ludwin, met with Leno in March at his Burbank studio to discuss the contract extension, and explained the network's stance on handing over the show to O'Brien. While Leno quietly felt both disappointed and befuddled, he noted he did not want to see he and O'Brien go through the same dilemma he and Letterman faced twelve years earlier, and agreed to the plans. His only request was that NBC wait to announce O'Brien's installment as host well after the extension, to which the executives agreed. While Leno handled the news professionally (to Zucker's relief), he soon headed to producer Debbie Vickers's office to let her know he felt as if he had just been fired. NBC's announcement of the renewal inevitably led to press speculation on O'Brien's fate; to that end, O'Brien and his team went with the charade, peppering interviews with unclear, vague statements on his future. On September 27, 2004, O'Brien officially signed on to become the next host of The Tonight Show; NBC allowed the first comment aside from the press release to come from Leno on that night's show. "'Cause this, you know, this show is like a dynasty,” Leno said. “You hold it, and then you hand it off to the next person. And I don’t want to see all the fighting and all the 'Who’s better?' and nasty things back and forth in the press. So right now, here it is—Conan, it's yours! See you in five years, buddy!"
Losing Leno (2005–08)
Leno was, in reality, overcome with incredulity; in private conversations, he likened the situation to a relationship, noting that he was loyal and still ended up "heartbroken." From his perspective, the situation made no sense: they had remained number one in ratings and consistently brought in money. He began frequently lamenting his confusion to producer Vickers, explaining that he was "sick of lying" when people inquired on his retirement. Eventually, he began mulling around his options after Tonight, telling his staff that after the transition, they could simply move to ABC, and work at the Disney lot not far from their current Burbank studio. His frustration with the situation came across in his nightly monologues, as more jokes regarding NBC's fourth place position in the ratings, as well as jokes regarding the future transition, began to appear. While NBC executives tended to not worry in the immediate years following the decision, by 2007, Zucker began to ponder what losing Leno might mean for the network. Around this time, Fox and ABC began to court Leno privately, conveying interest and holding discreet conversations.
More offers for Leno had sprung up (including a lucrative one for a syndicated program by Sony Pictures Television), and Zucker began to make trips to the Burbank studio in an effort to keep Leno in spring 2008. He gave him numerous suggestions, including a Bob Hope-type deal (high-profile specials), a Sunday night primetime show, or even a nightly cable show on USA Network (owned by NBCUniversal). Executives began to entertain an ideal solution—pay off O'Brien and retain Leno—but Zucker viewed the idea as "outrageous." By this time, NBC had already broken ground on a new studio for O'Brien's Tonight Show, renovating Stage 1 at the Universal lot in Universal City, for a reported $50 million. During a spring lunch meeting with Jeff Ross, NBC sports chief Dick Ebersol imparted some advice: that O'Brien retire silly antics (such as his signature "string dance") and focus more on pitching his show to middle America, which would involve stretching out his monologue. O'Brien, then a year away from inheriting the sacred ground of The Tonight Show, was indeed lengthening his monologue, but viewed suggestions from Ludwin as largely unnecessary: "I think people are overthinking the twelve-thirty-to-eleven- thirty shift," he said, instead desiring to put his own stamp on the show's tradition. By this point, O'Brien's popularity, sky high at the time of the contract signing, had gone down slightly. He had neglected to change his act to suit a more mainstream audience (as NBC imagined he would) and CBS's Craig Ferguson, who occupied the post-Letterman slot, had begun to occasionally trump O'Brien in overall ratings. Though internal anxiety increased among executives, most tended to still support O'Brien.
Zucker's last resort for Leno was a nightly 10pm program. As ratings had slipped entirely for 10pm shows on NBC, he imagined a nightly Leno at 10 could perhaps produce a "paradigm shift" and reverse NBC's fortunes. On December 8, 2008, Leno verbally agreed to stay at the network—producing a nightly 10pm variety show titled The Jay Leno Show—and phoned ABC and Fox to inform. Zucker and Ludwin planned to meet with O'Brien to explain the deal, but as word leaked out to The New York Times, they decided to meet with him directly following that night's show. Following the meeting, Ross and O'Brien met with writers and mulled over the decision. O'Brien instantly felt uneasy, but as he was still in essence receiving The Tonight Show, he remained calm. Late Night with Conan O'Brien officially signed off the following February, and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on May 29. Much of O'Brien's entire staff moved cross-country to Los Angeles to prepare his version of The Tonight Show. He and his staff threw themselves into developing the program, but remained concerned regarding NBC's commitment—or lack of one. Meanwhile, senior level executives at NBC predicted the Leno experiment would flop wildly, getting trumped by hour-long dramas on competing networks and cable.
The Tonight Show and The Jay Leno Show debut
The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien pulled in over nine million viewers to its June 1, 2009 premiere, doing extremely well in the coveted young demographics. Critics were generally very favorable; Tom Shales of The Washington Post, once a Conan detractor, wrote that "There's every indication that O'Brien will be up to the job of his illustrious predecessors." Older audiences, however, gradually checked out of the program night by night; seven episodes later, the Late Show with David Letterman had edged above O'Brien for the first time. While Zucker called O'Brien to reiterate that the generational change was expected, other executives were not as pleased. O'Brien and his team were not happy with the lack of promotion in the show's early weeks. Against the wishes of several PR executives, Zucker authorized a press release claiming O'Brien "the New King of Late Night," a move that attracted ridicule. Zucker later regretted the decision, and many at O'Brien's Tonight Show offices were displeased.
Over the following weeks, Zucker grew weary with O'Brien's performance and what he regarded as a booking of the wrong stars. When a controversy erupted over a joke Letterman told regarding politician Sarah Palin's family, Zucker eagerly pushed the O'Brien camp to bring her on their show, eyeing an opportunity to regain viewers and perhaps make it a turning point for a show not doing particularly well. O'Brien disliked the idea, finding it pandering to viewers that would alienate fans and the press, as well as hurt his relationship with Letterman. "This reaction drove Zucker nuts," wrote Bill Carter in The War for Late Night. "As a producer, he knew how to manipulate audiences — that was simply what you did as part of the job. [...] As a boss, he couldn’t believe Conan would stand in the way of what was obviously the smart business move — for him and his network." Meanwhile, Letterman continued to score higher ratings than O'Brien with regularity; his fall interview with President Barack Obama topped The Tonight Show by over 2.6 million viewers, and the next week, a scandal involving attempted extortion and personal affairs made him the talk of the country. By the fall, ratings for The Tonight Show were down "roughly two million viewers a night year-to-year" from when Leno hosted the program.
Meanwhile, Leno was candid regarding his plans for his new show: "Even though it's ten o'clock, we’re going to pretend it’s eleven thirty." The Jay Leno Show premiered on September 14, 2009, featuring Jerry Seinfeld and Kanye West (just following his infamous rant against Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards) as guests. The program racked up 18.4 million viewers, doing much better than O'Brien's Tonight Show debut in both overall numbers and young demographics. Critics were harsher to Leno's program, with many viewing it as a rehash of the show he had just left. Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times called a commercial funnier than the show's whole, asking, "This is the future of television? This wasn't even a good rendition of television past." By the show's second week, with it airing directly opposite season premieres, The Jay Leno Show saw its audience size fall to six million viewers. As the weeks wore on, producer Vickers noticed that NBC's plan — to save the best segments, such as Leno's signature "Headlines," for last, in order to provide a strong lead-in for local news — was possibly hurting the program. One month in, Leno often only made third place, and executives became more uneasy.
Ratings for NBC affiliates' local news broadcasts at 11 began to slip by mid-October, especially on NBC owned-and-operated stations in the largest markets, creating high anxiety for the network. The Tonight Show still retained a slightly higher share of the coveted 18-24 demographic against Letterman, but did see those numbers slip even more when The Jay Leno Show began. Affiliates began to complain, and in addition to a domino effect on the local news, O'Brien and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, O'Brien's successor at 12:30, the disastrous ratings for Leno had damaged NBC's existing primetime lineups. Clearing the time period for Leno also damaged relations with the producers of shows that previously occupied that slot, such as Law & Order: SVU's Dick Wolf. Leno offered an October 29 interview to Broadcasting & Cable, which included a notable exchange on the possibility of ever returning to the 11:35 slot: "If it were offered to me, would I take it? If that's what they wanted to do, sure. That would be fine if they wanted to." Industry trades were abuzz over the 11:35 comment, and when Conan sidekick Andy Richter called the move less than "classy" in a chat with TV Squad, Leno called Ludwin to complain.
As most programs went into repeats in December, the staff at Leno, notably Vickers, had focused on grabbing big-name guests for that month in an effort to save the show; these efforts were cut short when she was informed they had "until the end of November." Affiliate calls came at an alarming rate, and research analysis revealed O'Brien's drastically reduced median age for The Tonight Show—age 56 to 46—could possibly reflect that he was too "niche" for the earlier time. Any effort to take Leno off the air was halted by his contract, which had an enormously unusual catch: Leno signed a "pay-and-play" contract (as opposed to the usual "pay-or-play"), guaranteeing NBC would both air his program and pay him for up to two years. On November 6, NBC chairman Jeff Gaspin received an email from the sales division with a suggestion: cancel O'Brien and reinstate Leno as host of The Tonight Show. Upon Gaspin's legal interpretation of Leno's contract, the option to simply move Leno back to The Tonight Show became relevant. When very poor ratings came in for the November "sweeps" period, affiliates became persistent and board members demanded something be done regarding the 10pm lead-in.
If something were not done by January, the affiliates reasoned, they would instate syndicated programming or move up their news broadcasts and preempt Leno. Desperate for a decision, Ludwin, Gaspin and Zucker kicked around possible solutions for their dilemma, such as cutting Leno to a few nights per week. In an attempt to alleviate the situation, Vickers moved the most popular comedy segments to the second act of The Jay Leno Show, moving their "10 at 10" segment to later in the broadcast. Gaspin again received the suggestion to put Leno back at 11:35, and soon began working on a plan to cut The Jay Leno Show to a half-hour, leading into Conan's Tonight Show around midnight. The biggest calamity in this scenario would be Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, which would get bumped to 1am. The reconfigured lineup could start in March 2010, following NBC's coverage of the Winter Olympics. Zucker preferred a plan for Leno to include an occasional guest and comedy piece, while Dick Ebersol favored returning to the way it once was, with Leno at 11:35 and O'Brien at 12:35 (this plan would effectively cancel Late Night). Gaspin laid out his plan to Zucker one week before Christmas, but both agreed to wait it out for the new year, as to not "ruin anybody's holiday season."
The plan moved forward after confirmation that O'Brien's contract did not guarantee a strict 11:35 start time (a loophole included primarily to accommodate sports preemptions and specials such as the network's New Year coverage). Gaspin planned to disclose the news to Leno first, and then, if all went well, report it to O'Brien the next week. When Gaspin met with Leno and Vickers and laid out the proposal, the response was positive, although they questioned how such a plan would work. Gaspin reasoned that the company was in a desperate position, and he indicated his confidence that O'Brien would too go along with the changes. While Leno embraced the plan, Vickers was unnerved; without a guest or music act she could have no studio audience, which could have disastrous consequences on O'Brien. In order to meet with O'Brien the following Monday, Gaspin was forced to cancel a meeting with the affiliate board, but promised them that by doing so, he would have an answer to the 10pm problem that "will likely be something they're happy with." Following his Wednesday, January 6 show, O'Brien met with manager Gavin Polone afterward, and lamented his anxiety with the ratings: "I just think he [Jay Leno] is going to hurt me in some way."
News regarding Leno leaked via an obscure website, FTV Live, by the following morning, which set the Internet abuzz with rumors regarding both Leno and O'Brien's fates. Gaspin scheduled an immediate meeting with Ross and O'Brien as soon as they arrived, and although O'Brien had a hint of what was to come, explained the proposed changes. "I know how hard I worked for this," responded O'Brien. "It was promised to me. I had a shitty lead-in." Following the tense 15-minute meeting, O'Brien and Ross returned to the Tonight studio. TMZ reported on the story, and, according to Bill Carter in The War for Late Night, essentially reversed the rumor with a headline reading, "NBC Shakeup; Jay Leno Comes Out on Top." O'Brien called an emergency staff meeting and assured all that they had not been canceled and all would be fine. The TMZ story deeply bothered O'Brien ("the timing of the leak to TMZ—coming so soon after a story that Jay had been canceled—screamed of an attempt at diversionary action," wrote Carter), and he and Ross reasoned that they indeed were the last to be told of the changes.
By the following morning, both men reasoned that they would have to wind up leaving NBC, and O'Brien opened that night's show with "We’ve got a great show for you tonight—I have no idea when it will air, but it's gonna be a great show." Polone viewed the move, as a whole, a reactionary one by Zucker, concluding that he was acting in self-preservation, since NBCUniversal owner General Electric (GE) was in the process of negotiating the sale of a controlling interest in the company to cable operator Comcast. When a story ran that night on The New York Times's website that Fox had an "overt interest" in O'Brien and was not going along with the plan, Zucker reasoned that Polone was to blame. The situation became heated when Zucker placed a call to Rick Rosen, inquiring on the story and demanding an immediate answer from the O'Brien camp regarding the changes. Gaspin spoke on the situation at a previously scheduled press conference that Sunday, noting that "I obviously couldn’t satisfy either with 100 percent of what they wanted. That’s why I came up with this compromise." Zucker, upon hearing that O'Brien still did not take the proposal well, threatened Rosen: "I'm going to tell you right now that I can pay him or play him. I can ice you guys." On Monday night's show, O'Brien continued jokes on the subject; responding to thunderous applause, he joked, "You keep that up, and this monologue won’t start until 12:05."
"People of Earth"
Rosen suggested they hire "perhaps the best known (and most feared) litigation lawyer in Hollywood," Patty Glaser, to help grasp the situation. Following discussions on Leno's contract during a post-show conference, Glaser turned her attention to O'Brien for his opinion. He expressed his desire to write a statement expressing his feelings on the matter, and after hearing what he would possibly say in such a statement, Glaser agreed to the idea, although Ross was initially reluctant. O'Brien went without sleep that night, crafting his statement obsessively. He returned to the studio the following morning, listening as the lawyers and Glaser read over the statement (it remained largely unchanged before published). According to The War for Late Night, Glaser found "the statement as ideal for their purposes. It laid out Conan’s point of view unequivocally, but without compromising his legal options. Nothing in there overtly said he was quitting, so he could not be accused of forsaking his contractual obligations."
O'Brien's press release went out mid-day on January 12, which he addressed to "People of Earth":
For 60 years the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn’t the Tonight Show. [...] So it has come to this: I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it. My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The Tonight Show. But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction.
According to The War for Late Night, "the 'People of Earth' letter—the manifesto, as NBC came to call it—changed the tone. This wasn't just Conan saying no; it was Conan saying no, and you're wrong, and, by the way, go fuck yourselves." However, the moment that "represented the point of no return" came that Wednesday night, as a "clearly liberated" O'Brien made this joke in his monologue: "I'm trying very hard to stay positive here, and I want to tell you something. This is honest. Hosting The Tonight Show has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me. And I just want to say to the kids out there watching: You can do anything you want in life. Yeah, yeah—unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too." Following the joke, Leno called Gaspin, asking, "Why the fuck am I giving up a half hour for this guy?" Conversations changed as to how much O'Brien would take to resolve the matter, and parties began to discuss a settlement.
Reaction and media coverage
Public support for O'Brien
Public reaction was overwhelmingly in favor of O'Brien during the conflict; in the days following the switch announcement, 88% of related Twitter posts expressed support for O'Brien. Over one million people joined two most prominent Facebook groups supporting O'Brien, "Team Conan" and "I'm With CoCo" (referring to an on-air nickname applied to O'Brien during his Tonight Show reign). Artist Mike Mitchell designed a poster reminiscent of the Obama "Hope" poster depicting O'Brien superimposed with an American flag in the background with the caption "I'm With Coco". The poster was widely circulated and displayed on the web and at various rallies. The color orange also became the choice of color for fans of Conan, referencing his light orange hair. O'Brien's overnight ratings began to shoot up (much to NBC's chagrin), and the viral support for O'Brien only increased by the week of his final shows.
Rallies in support of O'Brien were organized outside NBC studios across the United States, notably in Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, and New York City. O'Brien briefly appeared at a January 18 rally outside the Tonight Show studio, after which he gave the crowd free pizza. The show's announcer Andy Richter and drummer Max Weinberg also made an appearance during the rally to speak to the crowd from atop the Tonight Show studio, and Tonight Show Band trombonist Richie "La Bamba" Rosenberg was driven around the crowd in a Popemobile-style vehicle. American Red Cross representatives were at a number of the rallies to collect money for the Haiti earthquake relief.
Many in Hollywood expressed support for O'Brien, including Roger Ebert, Sarah Silverman, Will Ferrell, Jim Gaffigan, Jeff Garlin, Jim Carrey, Aziz Ansari, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Paul F. Tompkins, Doug Benson, Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, Alyssa Milano, Chris Parnell, Marlee Matlin, Judd Apatow Ben Stiller, Ice-T, Matthew Perry, Norm Macdonald, Howard Stern, and Ricky Gervais. Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers addressed the controversy on the program's Weekend Update segment, defending O'Brien and summarizing the situation by comparing NBC to the husband of two wives, who had decided to leave one wife for another, and then change their mind and be married to both, angering both wives. Meyers went on to sarcastically claim that the network's hope for survival all rested on Chuck, which had experienced several problems maintaining an audience.
Numerous media outlets offered support of O'Brien, such as Gawker and The Examiner, as well as less usual outlets such as advertisements running on Adult Swim. Numerous parody videos appeared on sites like YouTube and Funny or Die, in favor of O'Brien.
Criticism of Leno
Leno faced heated criticism and increasing negative publicity for his perceived role in the timeslot conflict, with some critics predicting that his reputation—along with those of Jeff Zucker and NBC as a whole—had been permanently damaged by the incident. Critics pointed to the 2004 Tonight Show clip, wherein Leno claimed he would allow O'Brien to take over without incident. Actor and comedian Patton Oswalt was among the first celebrities to openly voice disappointment with Leno, saying, "Comedians who don't like Jay Leno now, and I'm one of them, were not like, 'Jay Leno sucks;' it's that we're so hurt and disappointed that one of the best comedians of our generation... willfully has shut the switch off." Rosie O'Donnell has been among O'Brien's most vocal and vehement supporters, calling Leno a "bully" and his recent actions "classless and kind of career-defining." Howard Stern was also a harsh critic of Leno before and following the timeslot change announcement; Stern appeared on Late Night in 2006, and told O'Brien that he felt it was unlikely that Leno would ever willingly give up Tonight to anyone. The 67th Golden Globe Awards, which aired on NBC during the heat of O'Brien's settlement negotiations on January 17, featured numerous jokes on the controversy by Tina Fey, Tom Hanks, and show host Ricky Gervais: "Let's get on with it before NBC replaces me with Jay Leno."
In an essay for the Wall Street Journal, Nathan Rabin wrote that Leno had "raced past the reviled likes of Dane Cook and Carlos Mencia on the list of popular stand-ups hated by comedians and comedy writers." Bill Zehme, the co-author of Leno's autobiography Leading with My Chin, told the Los Angeles Times, "The thing Leno should do is walk, period. He's got everything to lose in terms of public popularity by going back. People will look at him differently. He'll be viewed as the bad guy." Joe Queenan from the Wall Street Journal went further in his criticism of Leno, jokingly comparing the controversy to Adolf Hitler's annexation of Czechoslovakia. David Letterman was one of the more adamant critics of NBC and Leno's handling of the conflict. He noted that, "We went through our own version of this, 17, 18 years ago," and he ridiculed Leno's recent "state of the network address", wherein he pleaded for viewers not to "blame Conan," with Letterman noting, "In the thousands and thousands of words that have been printed about this mess, who has blamed Conan?" Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's The Daily Show reflected on the controversy, saying, "At least we don't have to deal with Jeff Zucker. That guy's like the Cheney of television, shooting shows in the face." Stewart also shouted "Team Conan" as his "Moment of Zen" at the end of the January 21 episode of The Daily Show. Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report asked guest Morgan Freeman to read a list of "untrustworthy things," one of which paraphrased a statement made by Leno in 2004, "Conan: The 11:30 slot? Yours."
At ABC, Jimmy Kimmel of Jimmy Kimmel Live! donned a gray wig and fake chin, performing his entire January 12 show in character as Leno. With his bandleader, Cleto Escobedo, parodying Leno's bandleader Kevin Eubanks, Kimmel started out his monologue with "It’s good to be here on ABC. Hey, Cleto, you know what ABC stands for? Always Bump Conan." He also referenced the "People of Earth" letter, noting how O'Brien declined to participate in the "destruction" of The Tonight Show, commenting as Leno that "Fortunately, though, I will! I'll burn it down if I have to!" Leno called Kimmel the next morning to discuss the bit, and at the end of the call, Leno suggested he come over and appear on his show. When his booking department called to confirm his appearance on a "10 at 10" segment, Kimmel agreed immediately. When he received the questions for his January 14 appearance—such as "What's your favorite snack junk food?"—he realized Leno intended to neutralize the scathing parody and paint the two as friends. Kimmel was upfront with wanting to discuss the fiasco at hand, and upon his appearance, attempted to steer the questions that way: when asked about his favorite prank, he responded, "I think the best prank I ever pulled was, I told a guy once, 'Five years from now I'm going to give you my show.' And then when the five years came, I gave it to him and I took it back, almost instantly." Following similar remarks to more questions, Kimmel closed the segment with this comment: "Listen, Jay. Conan and I have children. All you have to take care of is cars! We have lives to lead here! You've got eight hundred million dollars! For god's sakes, leave our shows alone!" Leno never fought back and accepted the bit as comedy (he ascribed it as Kimmel attempting to score some publicity), but producer Vickers was furious.
The only late night host that remained neutral was Jimmy Fallon, who refused to take sides, calling O'Brien and Leno "two of my heroes and two of my friends." He later joked that, "There's been three hosts of Late Night: David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, and me. And if there's one thing I've learned from Dave and Conan, it's that hosting this show is a one-way ticket to not hosting The Tonight Show."
Discussions neared completion regarding a financial settlement by January 14, and would be in place following O'Brien's final week of shows—January 18–22—a concession O'Brien pushed to give his program a proper farewell. Movement on the settlement slowed when run by General Electric (GE) executives, then-owners of NBCUniversal. NBC held several requests, among those that he not bring Howard Stern on the show his final week (a request the O'Brien camp found slightly comical) and that they see the show's final week of scripts (O'Brien never sent them). Talks for much of the rest of the week got nowhere, and a Saturday New York Post story ran claiming that O'Brien's staff felt "betrayed" by his actions. The article claimed that the staff did not understand why O'Brien could not just take the 12:05 slot, in order to keep their jobs, as instead he was controlled by his ego. O'Brien was infuriated by the story—which he assumed a direct plant from NBC—as nearly all of his staff unanimously agreed he should walk. He was personally appalled that the network challenged his character, as stressing severance for his employees was enormously important to him (he had paid them out of his own pocket during the writer's strike three years earlier).
NBC's requests became more unreasonable and the O'Brien camp refused them, such as the right to pull any of his final shows if the network objected to the content (i.e., a joke about the conflict/NBC). Jeffrey Immelt, GE chairman, questioned why they were paying so much for a performer destined to run to another network. Negotiations continued on into O'Brien's final week; he could not confirm on-air it was indeed his final week of shows, which produced difficulty in booking the guests he desired for his final show. On January 19, multiple media outlets reported that O'Brien and NBC were close to signing a deal between $30 and $40 million for the host to walk away from the network. Following his Wednesday, January 20 edition, O'Brien remained at the studio until the early hours of the morning, alongside Ross and the legal counsel, trying to finalize the settlement. O'Brien wandered off, playing his guitar alone and stepping out on the deserted Universal lot at midnight, attempting to make sense of the situation. Meanwhile, Ron Meyer passingly suggested to Zucker and Gaspin, based off the public outcry, that they should stick with O'Brien; the two executives agreed to send him on his way. O'Brien signed the agreement that night and the following day the terms were made public.
In all, O'Brien received a $45 million deal to leave NBC. O'Brien received pay for the remaining two years of his contract (amounting to $33 million), with additional payments to Jeff Ross, Andy Richter and bandleader Max Weinberg. The severance pay for his staff was above standard GE levels (amounting in all to $12 million), which O'Brien had stressed. O'Brien paid around 50 stagehands and various crew members at least six weeks severance pay out of his own pocket, as NBC gave those particular staffers nothing in the settlement. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees has said that they were "very happy" with how O'Brien treated his employees during the conflict. The contract contained a clause prohibiting O'Brien from making negative remarks about NBC for a certain amount of time; it did not, however, contain the previously rumored "mitigation clause", in which NBC would be able to keep some of the severance pay after O'Brien finds a new program. It stipulated that he may return to television on another network no earlier than September 1, 2010.
The conflict only provided more comedy material for O'Brien's Tonight Show: during the show's last moments, O'Brien put the show up for sale on Craigslist ("Guaranteed to last for up to seven months; designed for 11:35, but can easily be moved!") and then himself; a new segment looking back at clips from the show's seven-month tenure were dubbed "Classic Tonight Show Moments"; and he designed a bit to seem as though he were spending absurd amounts of NBC's money, such as customizing a Bugatti Veyron, playing audio and video clips with expensive rebroadcast rights, and using a purported "rare ground sloth" to spray Beluga caviar on what was deemed an original Picasso. Because the segments aired in days immediately following the 2010 Haiti earthquake while national fundraising efforts (including some spearheaded by NBC) were ongoing, O'Brien received criticism for wasting resources. In response to the outcry over the expense of these sketches, O'Brien explained that the segments were indeed jokes, and many of the props were either counterfeits or borrowed in exchange for promotional consideration.
The guest roster for O'Brien's final show on January 22—Tom Hanks, Steve Carell and original first guest Will Ferrell—was regarded by O'Brien as a "dream lineup"; in addition, Neil Young performed his song "Long May You Run" and, as the show closed, was joined by Beck, Ferrell (dressed as Ronnie Van Zant), Billy Gibbons, Ben Harper, O'Brien, Viveca Paulin, and The Tonight Show Band to perform the Lynyrd Skynyrd song "Free Bird".
In his final moments on air, O'Brien stated that between Saturday Night Live, Late Night and The Tonight Show, he had worked for NBC for over 20 years, and that he was "enormously proud of the work they have done together" and thanked NBC for the first time since announcing his intention to quit. O'Brien said his decision to quit as host was "the hardest thing [he] ever had to do." He praised and gave thanks to his staff, and thanked his fans (specifically those who participated in the Los Angeles rally) for their overwhelming support and offered heartfelt advice to his viewers in his farewell address, stating:
All I ask of you is one thing... I ask this particularly of the young people who watch. Please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record, it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen. I'm telling you, amazing things will happen.
Following the taping, the studio set was used one final time for a party thrown by staff. O'Brien's monologue spot from the floor was framed and signed by his staff as a gift, which touched O'Brien. 10.3 million people watched the final episode of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, a notably high number for live late-night viewing and for a Friday night. The final episode scored a 7.0 household rating and a 4.4 rating in the 18–49 demo. Not only did O'Brien's final show beat all late night competition, it outscored all prime time shows in the 18–49 demo from that night and the night before. The network confirmed that Leno would officially resume as host of The Tonight Show on March 1, and NBC reran episodes from O'Brien's time as host until the network began airing the Olympics on February 15.
Leno's first Tonight Show back pulled in 6.6 million viewers, and his margin over Letterman again held for much of the rest of his run until his second Tonight Show departure in 2014. While his numbers were down from his original incarnation of The Tonight Show, "It's as if a collective erase button was pushed," said Robert Thompson, professor of television at Syracuse University, "with the usual suspects back in their usual locations—except Conan is gone."
According to NBC, if O'Brien continued hosting, it would have been the first year that The Tonight Show would have actually lost money, which Leno later contended was damaging to the franchise. This assertion was scorned by skeptical critics as it was calculated that Conan's Tonight Show would have made significantly more money in advertising than Leno's show did, due to his more favorable youth demographic numbers. Also Leno's larger staff, higher production costs and higher salary would have by all accounts made Leno's Tonight Show more costly. O'Brien and Ross also challenged this accusation, concluding that in order for NBC to receive such figures, they must have folded into the cost of erecting the new studio/offices, alongside startup costs. At NBC, most young employees tended to support O'Brien, and joined the "I'm with Coco" Facebook groups; NBC later asked all employees to rescind their membership in any O'Brien-supporting pages. Similar action came when any effort to mention O'Brien's tenure was whitewashed from company history.
Gaspin was happy with the settlement, but nevertheless agreed with one of O'Brien's points—that his show had no time to grow: "Could it have grown? Absolutely," he said. We just couldn't give him the time." Zucker, in an interview with Charlie Rose, defended his strategy but noted that both shows were a mistake. Zucker, who had known O'Brien since their days at Harvard and was very close friends with Ross, was too very disappointed with how events played out, although he viewed it necessary. Leno, in an attempt to repair his public perception, granted an interview with Oprah Winfrey on January 25; he stripped himself of any blame for O'Brien's disappointment, noting that it was all about ratings, and also confirmed that he told a white lie in 2004 when he guaranteed The Tonight Show to O'Brien. In a reference to a 2007 Super Bowl commercial starring Letterman and Winfrey (the two had feuded for years prior), Letterman, Leno and Winfrey all appeared in a spot airing during Super Bowl XLIV in February 2010. The ad—Letterman's idea—was the first time the late-night hosts had met since their own 1992 debacle. In it, Letterman and Leno sit on opposite sides of Winfrey watching the game; Letterman deems it "the worst Super Bowl party ever" due to Leno's inclusion, and Winfrey tells him to "be nice," resulting in a quip from Leno: "Oh, he's just saying that 'cause I'm here." The clip stirred a Web frenzy, with commentators speculating that Leno had been "green-screened" into the picture.
Letterman had initially wanted O'Brien to be in the promo as well, but he turned it down: "No fucking way I'm doing that. It's not a joke to me—it's real." O'Brien was sure his agreement prohibited television appearances for several months, but gathered NBC would only be too happy to allow him a one-time reprieve for the ad, as it was to improve Leno's image. O'Brien, by this point, was planning a live tour with his staff that would take him on the road, and had also created a Twitter account, which flourished (NBC closely monitored the account for anti-Leno sentiments). After about one hour online, O'Brien's number of Twitter followers had rocketed past the 30,000 followers of the official Jay Leno account, and he held over 300,000 followers in under 24 hours; he surpassed the one million mark in May 2010. Many speculated that O'Brien would sign a deal with Fox for a late-night program; Comedy Central and HBO had also expressed interest in O'Brien. Fox's deal moved slowly and they eventually withdrew their offer due to station resistance, the daunting financial investment and opposition from Roger Ailes, an important figure at Fox parent News Corporation.
O'Brien eventually signed with cable network TBS in April, with his next program, Conan, set to debut in November. The move prompted industry surprise; online blog Vulture described the reaction as thus: "Conan will now be featured as a lead-in for Lopez Tonight on TBS. It's not just basic cable, it's unsexy basic cable." His nationwide comedy tour, The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour, began on April 12 and ran through June 14. A documentary shot during that time, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, as well as a May 60 Minutes interview, prompted some observers to deem him "whiny." Vanity Fair's James Wolcott said O'Brien "came off as a peevish straw of nervous energy … a self-involved chatterbox."
As NBC could have potentially retained intellectual property originating from O'Brien's entire 17-year tenure with the network, O'Brien simply changed names on the tour (turning his character, the Masturbating Bear, into the "Self-Pleasuring Panda"). The Washington Post later reported that retaining the characters is "not a key issue for O'Brien."
Conan premiered in November 2010 to 4 million viewers, leading all late-night talk shows, more than tripling the audience of its direct competition, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. However, ratings quickly fell: by the following fall, The Wall Street Journal proclaimed that "TBS's pricey Conan O'Brien experiment is flopping." In an effort to bolster ratings, TBS secured the cable syndication rights to The Big Bang Theory at a reported $4 million per episode to serve as a lead-in to Conan three nights a week. Steve Koonin of Turner Entertainment stated in 2012 that "Conan is our Mount Rushmore. We've made him the centerpiece of TBS. If success were only about ratings, we'd just run Westerns all the time." The show has continued to see ratings fall, however, The Hollywood Reporter credited it with forging "a digital empire, his company's own shows and a young audience TBS hopes will follow him anywhere." The show is currently renewed through 2018.
Many of the executives involved in the botched transition and later changes subsequently left the network. Zucker was fired by Comcast CEO Steve Burke, but stressed that the late-night conflict was not to blame, but rather Comcast's insistence to install their own team. Marc Graboff opted to leave his contract early that November, as did Gaspin. While O'Brien admitted in 2012 that he occasionally still felt resentment over the events that transpired, he noted that "I had an amazing partnership with NBC and was very disappointed at the outcome, but I didn't feel entitled to Late Night or Tonight or to the TBS show. If you're in this business and haven't experienced profound pain at some point, you're not doing it right. I strongly believe that." He has had no contact with Leno, noting "the odds are we will both leave this Earth without speaking to each other, which is fine. There's really nothing to say. We both know the deal. He knows; I know. I'd rather just forget."
Leno kept The Tonight Show number one for the rest of his run, when he handed it to Jimmy Fallon in 2014. Fallon's credibility with younger viewers and presence online was why NBC instituted the change, only announced three years following O'Brien's departure. In a 2010 issue of TV Guide, the timeslot conflict ranked #1 on a list of TV's biggest "blunders".
While alluding to (and joking about) the 2010 controversy many times over his last few weeks on the air, Leno did not directly acknowledge his nine-month absence from the franchise, nor did he acknowledge O'Brien by name as he concluded his tenure as host. During the February 6, 2014 episode of Conan, however, which aired the same night as Leno's final Tonight Show, O'Brien referenced Leno in his monologue by alluding to NBC's position as the American broadcaster of the 2014 Winter Olympics, saying:
"NBC has the Olympics. It's a big deal. NBC will finally get to show somebody who is okay with passing the torch. (pause for laughter and applause) I allowed myself one, but it was a good one."
Though NBC had spent considerable effort to scrub any references to O'Brien's brief tenure as The Tonight Show host following the controversy, it was acknowledged by the network during the buildup to the 2014 transition from Leno to Fallon. A moving image of O'Brien walking onto his Tonight set was displayed (for less than one second) in an on-air promo chronicling the franchise's history, and Fallon referenced the conflict on his first Tonight Show episode, when he opened the show by joking:
“I'm Jimmy Fallon, and I'll be your host—for now. (pause for laughter) Of course, I wouldn't be here tonight if it weren't for the previous Tonight Show hosts, so I want to say thank you to Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno.”
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