My Take On… #228: Why Didn’t The NBC Late Night Transition Work The First Time Around?

It was four years ago this week, NBC made this announcement regarding its’ late night future:

Yeah, how did that first transition work out again?:

I mean, how did they screw this up so badly the first time around and more importantly, why did it work the second time around?

Now, of course, I’m talking about the 2000s equivalent of NBC’s late night transition mishap because what more do you need to say about the 90s NBC late night transition mishap that hasn’t already been said.

To fully understand where it all went wrong, we have to go back to where the trouble began.

Near the turn of the millennium, NBC’s late-night lineup—Leno at 11:35, O’Brien at 12:35, and Saturday Night Live on the weekend—remained leaders in the ratings. By 2001, O’Brien’s contract at NBC had less than a year left to run, and despite arguably “coming into his own” in the preceding years, the network was reluctant to pay him on the same scale as other late-night hosts. That year, competing network Fox mounted an “extended, comprehensive campaign” to lure O’Brien away from the network, viewing his style suitable for the network’s image—”young, hip, somewhat subversive”. News Corporation chairman and CEO Peter Chernin pursued O’Brien personally, taking him and executive producer Jeff Ross to dinner on several occasions. Fox’s plan involved making O’Brien the network’s signature star: his program would begin 30 minutes before Leno and Letterman (the network’s local news broadcasts aired earlier than other networks, allowing the head start) and he would receive cross-promotion via its animated division and on Sunday NFL games. Chernin also offered the host seven times his current pay (a jump from $3 million to $21 million). Ross, friends with NBC president and CEO Jeff Zucker, informed him that Fox was aggressively pursuing O’Brien; NBC returned with a more realistic offer, bumping up O’Brien’s salary to $8 million and renewing him through 2005.

While many of O’Brien’s professional advisors and managers pushed for the Fox deal, O’Brien’s desire to one day perhaps take over The Tonight Show after Leno made it a difficult decision (O’Brien, like many baby-boomer comedians, had grown up idolizing Carson’s incarnation). Chernin warned O’Brien that waiting around for Leno to leave would be “only an invitation to long-term disappointment, and potentially a path toward undermining a promising career.” Nevertheless, O’Brien signed the deal with NBC in March 2002; the contract extended him through 2005 and most significantly contained an “explicit Prince of Wales clause” that solidified the official line of succession: If anything were to happen to Leno, O’Brien would step in. O’Brien’s successful hosting job at the 2002 54th Primetime Emmy Awards “sent out the most resounding message yet about his growing strength as a performer”, and a year later, NBC broadcast O’Brien’s tenth anniversary special in primetime. By the time Leno’s contract again came up for renewal, a discussion would be needed regarding the future of The Tonight Show. Facing the prospect of attempting to keep both Leno and O’Brien, Zucker made the final call on Leno’s deal: “Yes, we’ll extend your deal. But this is your last contract. Time to hand over the keys.” The plan would extend Leno four additional years, after which he would give The Tonight Show to O’Brien.

So, in a way, what had happened with Jay and Conan was kind of the inverse of what happened with Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. In 1991, NBC made a contract that Jay Leno would be guaranteed The Tonight Show whenever Johnny Carson announced his retirement and Carson and David Letterman would never be told about the deal. Carson later retired in May 1991 and Leno was named the new host shortly after causing the controversy to begin and go into early 1993 when Letterman moved over to CBS. This time, it was Jay Leno being told that Conan O’Brien was taking over the mantle of The Tonight Show whether he liked it or not. So, the tables were being turned on Leno like they were turned on Carson and essentially Letterman in the 90s.

In February 2004, NBC executive Marc Graboff informed Ross of the conversations, and he in turn ran the idea of waiting four more years to O’Brien, who was immediately receptive. Zucker, along with top late-night executive Rick Ludwin, met with Leno in March at his Burbank studio to discuss the contract extension, and explained the network’s stance on handing over the show to O’Brien. While Leno quietly felt both disappointed and befuddled, he noted he did not want to see himself and O’Brien go through the same dilemma he and Letterman faced twelve years earlier, and agreed to the plans. His only request was that NBC wait to announce O’Brien’s installment as host well after the extension, to which the executives agreed. While Leno handled the news professionally (to Zucker’s relief), he soon headed to Tonight Show producer Debbie Vickers’s office to let her know he felt as if he had just been fired. NBC’s announcement of the renewal inevitably led to press speculation on O’Brien’s fate; to that end, O’Brien and his team went with the charade, peppering interviews with unclear, vague statements on his future. On September 27, 2004, O’Brien officially signed on to become the next host of The Tonight Show; NBC allowed the first comment aside from the press release to come from Leno on that night’s show. “‘Cause this, you know, this show is like a dynasty,” Leno said. “You hold it, and then you hand it off to the next person. And I don’t want to see all the fighting and all the ‘Who’s better?’ and nasty things back and forth in the press. So right now, here it is—Conan, it’s yours! See you in five years, buddy!”

Yeah, Leno should’ve followed that up with “and then I’ll see you in seven months when I take my job back.” Okay, to be perfectly honest, Leno was a gentleman about the news and at the time, you could believe what he had said because he had been through this before the first time around and wanted to make sure there was this peaceful transition this time around.

Leno was, in reality, overcome with incredulity; in private conversations, he likened the situation to a relationship, noting that he was loyal and still ended up “heartbroken”. From his perspective, the situation made no sense: they had remained number one in ratings and consistently brought in money. He began frequently lamenting his confusion to producer Vickers, explaining that he was “sick of lying” when people inquired on his retirement. Eventually, he began mulling around his options after Tonight, telling his staff that after the transition, they could simply move to ABC, and work at the Disney lot not far from their current Burbank studio. His frustration with the situation came across in his nightly monologues, as more jokes regarding NBC’s fourth-place position in the ratings, as well as jokes regarding the future transition, began to appear. While NBC executives tended to not worry in the immediate years following the decision, by 2007, Zucker began to ponder what losing Leno might mean for the network. Around this time, Fox and ABC began to court Leno privately, conveying interest and holding discreet conversations.

More offers for Leno had sprung up (including a lucrative one for a syndicated program by Sony Pictures Television), and Zucker began to make trips to the Burbank studio in an effort to keep Leno in spring 2008. He gave him numerous suggestions, including a Bob Hope-type deal (high-profile specials), a Sunday night primetime show, or even a nightly cable show on USA Network (owned by NBCUniversal). Executives began to entertain an ideal solution—pay off O’Brien and retain Leno—but Zucker viewed the idea as “outrageous”. By this time, NBC had already broken ground on a new studio for O’Brien’s Tonight Show, renovating Stage 1 at the Universal lot in Universal City, for a reported $50 million. During a spring lunch meeting with Jeff Ross, NBC sports chief Dick Ebersol imparted some advice: that O’Brien retire silly antics (such as his signature “string dance”) and focus more on pitching his show to middle America, which would involve stretching out his monologue. O’Brien, then a year away from inheriting the sacred ground of The Tonight Show, was indeed lengthening his monologue, but viewed suggestions from Ludwin as largely unnecessary: “I think people are overthinking the twelve-thirty-to-eleven- thirty shift”, he said, instead desiring to put his own stamp on the show’s tradition. By this point, O’Brien’s popularity, sky high at the time of the contract signing, had gone down slightly. He had neglected to change his act to suit a more mainstream audience (as NBC imagined he would) and CBS’s Craig Ferguson, who occupied the post-Letterman slot, had begun to occasionally trump O’Brien in overall ratings. Though internal anxiety increased among executives, most tended to still support O’Brien.

Zucker’s last resort for Leno was a nightly 10 pm program. As ratings had slipped entirely for 10 pm shows on NBC, he imagined a nightly Leno at 10 could perhaps produce a “paradigm shift” and reverse NBC’s fortunes. On December 8, 2008, Leno verbally agreed to stay at the network—producing a nightly 10 pm variety show titled The Jay Leno Show—and phoned ABC and Fox to inform. Zucker and Ludwin planned to meet with O’Brien to explain the deal, but as word leaked out to The New York Times, they decided to meet with him directly following that night’s show. Following the meeting, Ross and O’Brien met with writers and mulled over the decision. O’Brien instantly felt uneasy, but as he was still in essence receiving The Tonight Show, he remained calm. Late Night with Conan O’Brien officially signed off the following February, and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on May 29. Much of O’Brien’s entire staff moved cross-country to Los Angeles to prepare his version of The Tonight Show. He and his staff threw themselves into developing the program, but remained concerned regarding NBC’s commitment—or lack of one. Meanwhile, senior level executives at NBC predicted the Leno experiment would flop wildly, getting trumped by hour-long dramas on competing networks and cable.

So, they already had an idea that this was not going to work at all and of course, what ended up happening? The Jay Leno Show premiered strong at first and then failed to buck the trend of NBC’s 10pm ratings downfall and so, uh oh, we’ve got a huge problem here.

January 2010 is when the shit literally began to hit the fan (cue Airplane shit flying into fan gag), NBC tried to pull a timeslot change in which Jay Leno would host a half hour show at 11:35, push off O’Brien’s Tonight Show to 12:05 meaning that it wouldn’t start until the next day, and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon to 1:05. O’Brien didn’t like the idea and thus, he stepped down as host of The Tonight Show putting Jay Leno back at the head of The Tonight Show. Conan O’Brien would eventually go on to continue his late night show on TBS in November and that is still on to this day.

Regardless, there’s no denying that Conan O’Brien got screwed big time by NBC. He was given a contract to stay with the network so he would get The Tonight Show but NBC never took into consideration that Jay Leno never wanted to give up that position that quickly. If they had just waited and just let Leno retire on his own terms, then it would’ve been fine. Hell, they still could’ve given Conan a deal that would allow him to take over The Tonight Show once Leno retired like Leno signed when he first took over the show in 1992. But NBC basically said “no, you’re leaving when we tell you to leave” and then realized years later, “oh, we still wanna keep you around.”

It was just a gigantic clusterfuck of a deal that I would say is even worse than the Leno/Letterman late night war because of how long of a gap there was from when it was first announced in 2004 to when it ended in 2010. It was NBC not knowing what to do to keep its’ late night stars together and they just went with the nuclear option.

So, when NBC set up the current late night rotation in 2013, there wasn’t so much of a commotion and NBC basically said that the change was happening in a year rather than making Jimmy Fallon wait five more years and then giving it to him, it was also a much quieter announcement unlike the last one because the people who are running NBC at the time knew what they were doing and saw what happened the first two times around. So, now Jay Leno has retired, Jimmy Fallon is still the host of The Tonight Show, and all is right with the world.

The fallout of NBC’s late night transitions should be a lesson to long-standing television personalities about how to handle retiring your post and deciding whether or not it’s time to call it quits on the right terms because if you do it when you still have creative juices in you, it’ll come back to bite you in the ass big time.

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