A few years before NBC sealed a deal with Jay Leno to host a nightly series in primetime, the net approached David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey about taking on similar gigs.
In both cases, Peacock execs were looking to fill the 8 p.m. slot across the week. NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker said he talked to Winfrey two years ago about moving her show to 8 weeknights on the network, but she declined. According to Zucker, Winfrey said she might have considered it a few years earlier, but it wasn’t the right fit at that point.
Zucker said the idea for a Letterman strip at 8 p.m. was floated to the CBS host about 10 years ago.
Actually, NBC looked at moving “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” into primetime as early as 1981. Zucker has a memo describing a study that was conducted to see about doing such a thing.
Back then, as now, NBC was having a difficult time in the ratings — although this time around, the 10 p.m. play was as much about keeping Jay Leno within the Peacock family as it was about shoring up the net’s schedule.
Leno met with reporters Tuesday night as he prepared to take the stage for NBC’s “Night of Comedy” upfront week event.
Leno confirmed that the 10 p.m. strip would indeed be titled “The Jay Leno Show.” That had been a working title, as Leno wasn’t a fan of just using his name.
According to Leno, he had suggested the title “Weeknights With Jay Leno” — but Zucker and company warned him the name would end up being abbreviated as “Weeknights” in news stories, perhaps confusing the matter.
The host, who signs off “The Tonight Show” for good next week, described the primetime show’s new, bigger stage (Stage 11 at NBC’s Burbank lot) and said he’s still mulling over the look and feel of the show –including whether there will be a bigger cast of characters and whether he’ll sit behind a desk.
NBC and Leno have previously spelled out other details, such as the likelihood of showcasing just one guest a night and also throwing more comedy at the end of the hour.
But beyond that, Leno brushed off notions that the show will be dramatically different from what he does now.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” he said. “You do what you do. The network will make ridiculous suggestions like they always do … it’s like school. You say, ‘Uh-huh’ and then go ahead and do what you were going to do.”
Leno and NBC don’t have any special stunts planned in the early months of the show. The network said it believed every night of “Leno” is already sweeps-caliber event programming.
The host, known for his work ethic, will likely work through the show’s first 46 weeks almost nonstop, other than a break for the Winter Olympics. Otherwise, Leno has no plans to go into repeats.
Zucker stressed that the network was fully committed to “Leno,” which led the host to quip, “If it’s not working, kick my ass out! I know how it works.”
Leno also responded to criticism from rival nets and other execs that the show’s primetime berth is a bad thing for the industry. If anything, it’s giving Leno motivation to work even harder, he said.
“Trash talking is part of the competition. It’s the sport,” Leno said. “That’s what gives you the impetus to go out and prove them wrong.”
Earlier on Tuesday, rival Jimmy Kimmel cracked that after ABC approached Leno, NBC responded by saying they wouldn’t allow him to leave the Peacock “even if we have to destroy our own network to keep him.”
Told of the joke, Leno laughed.
“That’s pretty good,” he chuckled. “As long as it’s funny, that’s the rule.”