O'Brien was on target years ago about potential 'Tonight Show' fallout

by Phil Rosenthal

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

19 January 2010


For Conan O’Brien, the writing was both on the wall and in Jay Leno’s freshly signed NBC contract renewal as host of “The Tonight Show” in the spring of 2004. He saw it coming. All of it.

“Jay may decide he wants to do the show until 2025,” O’Brien told The New York Times at the time. “Jay could say: My brain will be in a jar and we’ll wheel it out and I’ll do the monologue.”

Leno will be only 75 in 2025, and it’s actually not unreasonable to think he still might be hosting “Tonight,” assuming there’s an NBC on which to host it.

As of this writing, representatives for the flailing network and O’Brien — who later in ‘04 secured a guarantee he would get Leno’s “Tonight” job in ‘09 — were working on his exit settlement after seven months in the post so the network can reinstate Leno on the program he vacated in May.

NBC’s position, as articulated by NBC Universal Sports boss Dick Ebersol, whose credits include bumping Jane Pauley off “Today” in favor of Deborah Norville, is that O’Brien’s ratings forced the network’s hand.

“What this is really all about is an astounding failure by Conan,” Ebersol told the Times. In giving “Tonight” to O’Brien, he said. “We bet on the wrong guy.”

Since NBC effectively bet on both by keeping Leno on reserve, who knows? We should know sometime before 2025.

In the meantime, both Leno and O’Brien are jockeying to play the victim of NBC’s managerial incompetence, as well as of each other — O’Brien as prey to Leno’s failure to mount a successful prime-time effort and unbridled ambition to hold onto “Tonight” as long as possible; Leno of O’Brien’s inability to maintain the No. 1 standing with which he left “Tonight,” imperiling the network’s No. 2 moneymaker after the “Today” show.

Never mind the orderly succession promised on the 50th anniversary of “Tonight” in October ‘04 when everyone was gracious and polite and saying they didn’t want a repeat of the ugliness that accompanied Leno replacing Johnny Carson in 1992 and David Letterman’s defection to CBS the next year. Leno pointed out on the air that no one but Carson had hosted the program in their 60s, “and I think it’s safe to say I’m no Johnny Carson.”

Leno’s 60th birthday will be in April.

Ironically, the reason Leno said he remained in the NBC fold with a prime-time venture he correctly predicted would “either be a big success or crash and burn” rather than jump to ABC and compete head-to-head against O’Brien was concern over how that would be perceived.

“In the public’s mind, you look bitter,” Leno told me in August, just before the launch of the failed series that would enable NBC to keep him around as insurance. “You look like, ‘Oh, Jay Leno didn’t like getting kicked off the “Tonight Show.”’ ... Bitterness doesn’t get you anywhere in show business. I always tell people the reason show business pays a lot of money is that when you get screwed, you’ve got something left over.”

For that reason, many may shrug indifferently at this whole debacle because on its face it seems to be just a story of rich middle-age white guys caught in a corporate struggle over who gets squeezed out and is sent packing with millions of dollars and who stays ... with millions of dollars.

It’s not Haiti. It’s not health care. It’s not even something Sen. Harry Reid said in private several years ago.

But, really, who doesn’t love a good, expensive corporate bungle?

Plus, “The Tonight Show,” a late-night TV institution of more than 55 years, stands much like the old Marshall Field’s flagship store in Chicago. Even if you never were near it or its sister stores, it’s a historic landmark. You might feel you have a stake in what it’s called and you might feel compelled to protest if it were to be overhauled, razed or otherwise threatened.

Then there’s the intimacy of bedtime TV.

“We’re in bed with these guys. It’s their job to give us hope,” said Chicago writer Bill Zehme, a veteran chronicler of late-night TV who helped write Leno’s autobiography and is working on a biography of Carson, whose 1962-92 “Tonight” run remains the gold standard. “We got through the day where we’ve learned more horrible things happened, and it’s almost evangelical. These guys make light of it so it doesn’t seem so bad. ... All those years, Carson was the mint on our pillow before bedtime.”

Lately, however, the late-night mints have been salted with references to the Leno-O’Brien situation. Letterman suggested a version of “Law & Order” called “Leno Victims Unit” and ran a fake ad that said Leno stands for the values that built this country, “like killing Indians because you want their land.” Fellow CBS host Craig Ferguson blamed the Leno-O’Brien mess on “atrocious management by a once great American network.”

ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel lampooned Leno for one whole edition of “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” earning an invitation to NBC’s “The Jay Leno Show,” where he continued his attack and pleaded: “Listen, Jay, Conan and I have children. ... You’ve got $800 million. For God’s sakes, leave our shows alone.”

O’Brien the other night said it was his dream to host “The Tonight Show,” which should serve as inspiration to kids that they can do anything they want, unless Leno wants it too. Leno noted Thursday that O’Brien’s ratings have gone up since the NBC fiasco blew up, “So you’re welcome.”

It is hard to imagine O’Brien didn’t suspect Leno’s return was a possibility, especially after NBC re-signed the longtime “Tonight” host in late 2008. And Leno, who always had close relations with affiliates, had to know his prospects in prime time would rest not on the cost-efficiency touted at the network level but the impact of his diminished ratings on stations’ profitable late local newscasts.

Back in early 2004, O’Brien turned loose his agents in his bid for “Tonight,” comparing them to Rottweilers. “Their job is to attack,” O’Brien said in the Times. “My job is to say: Dear me.”

And looking ahead to the inevitable clash over finite late-night network TV real estate, O’Brien said, “Let’s just hope it gets ugly, and then we’ll all have fun.”

Yes, kids, dreams do come true.

//Mixed media