“We believe we made the right business decision,” Zucker told Charlie Rose on the Monday edition of his PBS chatfest. “We think Jay, the ratings champ in late night for almost 15 years, will go back and be successful. What Conan decides to do is up to Conan.”
Once the network decided to drop the 10 p.m. “Jay Leno Show,” NBC — which has a two-year pay-and-play deal with Leno — decided quickly to give him back his old 11:35 p.m. home.
“We looked at it from a business decision,” Zucker said. “We had the ratings champ in late night the last 14 years there. And we looked at 11:35, which had done as well as we hoped it would do. We thought Jay would be broader at 11:35 and Conan had a bigger chance for success at 12:05.”
But as Zucker even admitted, the network didn’t give O’Brien much time to grow and audience there.
“We made a commitment at the time to put Conan into the slot,” he said. “We wanted to honor that commitment. But at the same time we didn’t want to lose Jay. We tried to keep both of our talents in house.”
In what has been a bone of contention between O’Brien’s camp and NBC, Zucker went on the record to state that in O’Brien’s “current contract for the ‘Tonight Show,’ there’s no guarantee of a time slot for the ‘Tonight Show.'”
“We asked Conan to move his show to 12:05, but he appears not to be comfortable with that,” he said. “I wish Conan had found a way to stay and do 12:05… at 12:05 it would have succeeded. “
Despite the current mess, Zucker said he had no regrets over the Great Late Night Compromise of 2004.
Under that bargain, Leno agreed to step aside in 2009 and hand the “Tonight Show” to Conan O’Brien.
“That was a great success,” Zucker said. “We kept Conan from leaving for a competitor at that point. They continued to enjoy success creatively and financially for the next 5 1/2 years. That was the right decision at the time.”
Leno at the time claimed to be fully behind the decision — but it became clear as the years went on that he had experienced buyer’s remorse in agreeing to the pact. (He confirmed that unhappiness in a Monday night comment to his audience.)
Later, NBC hatched the 10 p.m. idea in order to keep Leno on the air after the host exited “The Tonight Show.”
“It turns out we made some miscalculations with regard to that,” Zucker said. “We had to make a decision, that’s what led to the events of the last 10 days.”
Now, with Leno in line to once again star at 11:35, O’Brien has decided to leave the network, rather than watch “The Tonight Show” move to midnight.
“It wasn’t perfect for any of them,” Zucker said. “We didn’t have the time and all the room to make everyone happy. Ultimately we thought we had come up with a solution that would work…. At the end of the day, if (O’Brien) couldn’t accept his show being on 30 minutes later, that was his perogative, that was his right, and so be it.”
Zucker defended himself from the overwhelmingly bad press he has received in his handling of the situation.
“It is a sign of a leader to step up and say that if something’s not working, to have the guts to reverse it,” he said. “The worse thing you can do is let that mistake linger. We tried to correct something. That didn’t work. We’re not in denial about that. Leadership is about taking chances and risks and also leadership is about acknowledging when they don’t work.”
Zucker said he had received death threats in recent days over the move.
“I’m a big enough boy to know that I have to accept responsibility when things don’t work,” he said. “Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.”