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Jay Leno on “Oprah Winfrey”: Conan’s ratings damaged the “Tonight Show”

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“Oprah Winfrey” airs in the daytime in Chicago, which means Windy City viewers have already caught today’s episode — in which Jay Leno gives his side of the Late Night Crisis of 2010.

Winfrey asks many of the questions we’ve all been wondering: Why did you agree in 2004 to give the show up? Why did your 10 p.m. show fail? Have you been selfish in all of this?

Leno admits that he lied in 2004 when he said he would “retire.” But beyond that, he appears to stick by the defense he gave on his own “Jay Leno Show” — that he was just as wronged, having been “fired twice” by NBC. And that he’s not to blame for Conan O’Brien’s NBC departure.

The Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan watched and gives this full report. A few highlights:

When asked by Winfrey what his reaction was when NBC executives came to
him in 2004 and asked him to step aside in five years so that Conan
O’Brien could take over “The Tonight Show,” he was “devastated,” he
said. 

“It broke my heart. It really did I was devastated,”
Leno said. “This was the job that I had always wanted and this was the
only job that ever mattered in show business — to me. It’s the job
every comic aspires to. It was just like, why?”

“I’m not a
person who carries my emotions on my sleeve,” he added. “But you know
something, I’m happy with what I had. [‘The Tonight Show’] was a
tremendous success up to that point.”

What had he planned to do when the five years was up, Winfrey asked?

“Well,
I did tell a white lie on the air,” Leno said. “I said, ‘I’m going to
retire.'” It was just maybe easier that way.” He added that he
“assumed” in 2004 he’d get another job on a different network. But to
go to another network would have been “a lot of work,” he said.

“It wasn’t my place to call Conan,” Leno said. “They made this offer to
me. And I said, ‘Do you think Conan will go for this?’ And they said,
‘We’ll ask him tomorrow.’ ‘OK, let me know what happens.’ And then
thing you know, I guess Conan had his article in the paper and that was
that.”

Oprah: “Conan said he thought it would be destructive to the franchise, and…”

Leno:
“Well, if you look at where the [Conan ‘Tonight Show’] ratings were
[long pause], it was already destructive to the franchise.”

Mo’s got the whole story over at her The Watcher blog. Check it out. “Oprah” airs this afternoon in Los Angeles at 3 p.m. on KABC/Channel 7.

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