Many people feel pretty sure that Friday will be Conan O’Brien’s last night on the Tonight Show – or his last night on NBC, if you will – will be this Friday. Conan and NBC executives are said to be trying to out-hardball each other with how bitchy and hardcore they can be, and it’s looking more and more like Conan is going to walk away with a $40 million severance package and be made to sign some kind of confidentiality clause that will mean he can never badmouth NBC again. Of course, this current theory is coming from The Wall Street Journal (who does have good sources… corporate sources). NBC executive Jeff Zukcer whined to the Journal: “We were not surprised that Conan was disappointed in having his show back up a half hour. But we were very surprised and disappointed at how nasty it turned.” Meanwhile, Conan hasn’t signed anything so far, so he lashed out last night, calling NBC execs “incompetent morons”. Well played.
But before Conan’s tirade, we had to hear from Leno at 10 p.m. I think Jay is trying to act like the good guy, or the aw-shucks-it-wasn’t-my-fault guy, but… I don’t know, I just don’t buy Jay’s version of events or motives. Oh, and if you read between the lines, Jay is basically saying that none of this was his fault, he’s just some poor guy who chanced upon an $80 million contract or something:
There were no jokes this time – just the facts, as Jay Leno sees them.
In a detailed account of his side of the talk-show mess at NBC, Leno opened his lame-duck program Monday night seeking to set the record straight and try to repair relations with his – apparently temporary – Tonight Show successor.
“Through all of this, Conan O’Brien has been a gentleman,” Leno said during the taping. “He’s a good guy. I have no animosity towards him.”
For now, Leno said, it appeared that he would be returning as host of The Tonight Show at 11:35 p.m. after O’Brien apparently rejected moving to midnight.
“So that’s pretty much where we are. It looks like we might be back at 11:30,” he said. “I’m not sure. I don’t know.”
Leno attributed the fiasco that sparked a war-of-monologues – with David Letterman talking potshots from the sidelines at CBS – to the ill-conceived idea of replacing him on The Tonight Show consistently finished at No. 1.
He said the executives at NBC didn’t think he could sustain those ratings and wanted him replaced with O’Brien, who had gotten offers from other networks.
The problem was compounded, Leno said, when he wanted then to be released from his contract to go elsewhere. NBC countered with the 10 p.m. show, which he accepted against his better judgment.
“Didn’t seem like a good idea at the time,” Leno said, but added he was convinced because focus groups had liked the idea and because he wanted to keep his staff employed. He also claimed he was guaranteed two years on the air.
“Four months go by, we don’t make it,” he said. “Meanwhile, Conan’s show during the summer – we’re not on – was not doing well. The great hope was that we would help him. Well, we didn’t help him any, okay.”
That’s when O’Brien was offered the midnight version of The Tonight Show, Leno said.
“Next thing I see Conan has a story in the paper saying he doesn’t want to do that,” said Leno. “They come back to me and they say if he decides to walk and doesn’t want to do it, do you want the show back? I go, ‘Yeah, I’ll take the show back. If that’s what he wants to do. This way, we keep our people working, fine.’ So that’s pretty much where we are.”
One of the most shocking things about all of this is the oft-forgotten realization that just because someone works in the media, doesn’t mean they know how to work the media. It’s been startling to see how dumb, slow, and nasty NBC executives have been in handling this Leno-O’Brien drama. Speaking of, Jeff Zucker continued to do the media rounds by appearing on Charlie Rose last night. While Zucker admitted that this current situation is a disaster, he also complained that he’s now receiving death threats! Good Lord, Conan’s “I’m With Coco” peeps are rabid! Take it down a notch, people.