If NBC has any remorse about the whole Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien mess that recently unfolded more publicly than anyone at the network would like, it can all be traced back to the way top brass (that is, Jeff Zucker) handled the two hosts/one “Tonight Show” conundrum in 2004.
Leno made that clear in his “The Oprah Winfrey Show” interview on Thursday, where he admitted to being “devastated” when NBC told him that they wanted him to agree to give up “The Tonight Show” in five years so the network could pass that baton to O’Brien. “It broke my heart,” he said.
O’Brien and his reps were clearly itchy for Conan to be promoted, and had interest from other networks as ammunition. Promise the show to Conan now, the threat went, or risk seeing him leave for ABC or Fox.
New NBC Entertainment boss Jeff Gaspin has nobly taken the bullet for how the situation played out — with O’Brien balking at a move to midnight — but the roots of all this can be found in what happened a half-dozen years ago.
Meanwhile, the most telling moments in terms of Leno’s personality weren’t in the advance clips that were made available. When Winfrey talked about retiring herself — walking away from her daytime show in 2011 — Leno laughed it off, like he didn’t buy it. “We’ll see,” he said, joking that as the day neared she might find some way to continue.
Similarly, when Oprah asked why he didn’t retire, he made it all about keeping his staff working — as if his program was the only thing they could ever work on. As for how the situation played out, Leno said he’s “not sure what I could have done differently.” And I believe that he genuinely believes that.
To Leno, as long as somebody wants to hire you, you work until you drop — and then you go work some more in Vegas lounges. The money and success are secondary.
That might sound strange, but it makes for one hell of a “highly paid employee,” as he referred to himself. And it’s why when NBC elbowed him to step aside back in 2004 that the network bet against the wrong horse.