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Justin Murphy

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Who Screwed Conan? NBC Or Leno?
By Justin Murphy   
Not "rated" by the Author.
Last edited: Saturday, January 30, 2010
Posted: Saturday, January 30, 2010

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An article covering the recent late night talk show debacle

This is not the first time Jay Leno has been involved in a late night scandal. There is the now infamous story depicted in The Late Shift HBO TV Movie based on Bill Carter’s book where it is revealed Johnny Carson did not retire so quietly as we all thought. Carson had one more year on his contract, but Leno’s agent Helen Kuschnick had him shoved out to get Leno The Tonight Show, a late night staple he guest hosted for many years.

Despite being forced out a year before his 30th Anniversary on The Tonight Show, Carson was long expected to give the show David Letterman, who then hosted Late Night With David Letterman on NBC. Once he discovered he was not getting the show, Letterman demanded to be released from his contract. As a condition of his release, he had to remain with Late Night for one more year while Jay Leno hosted his first year of The Tonight Show.

Letterman was also given the promise that he would host The Tonight Show if Leno failed beyond his first year. Carson’s former executive producer Peter Lasally convinced Letterman that The Tonight Show he would be inheriting would not Carson’s Tonight Show, but damaged goods. On Lasally’s advice, Letterman reluctantly sought the advice of super-agent Michael Ovitz, who agreed to find him a better deal.

Due to a no compete clause in Letterman’s contract with NBC, he could not pitch to other networks. Ovitz arranged for the other networks to pitch to Letterman instead. In light of this, NBC offered him prime time specials while ABC and FOX both offered a late night talk show that catered to the younger viewers, with FOX offering him an 11PM time slot, giving a him a half hour jump on Leno’s Tonight Show. There were even offers for syndicated talk shows from Columbia and Paramount.

The offer that most intrigued Letterman was a more traditional talk show from CBS. This was the offer he took, leading to The Late Show with David Letterman on CBS competing with The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on NBC. A war Letterman won night after night for the first few years until Leno had Hugh Grant on as guest after his infamous arrest. With Leno asking the often remembered question 'What were the hell you thinking?'

Almost a decade after the Hugh Grant appearance, Jay Leno announced in September 2004 he would be leaving The Tonight Show in five years to make for Conan O’Brien to move to Los Angeles and take over hosting duties. Yet a few years later Leno began to regret the decision, and started negotiating with ABC and FOX over proposals for a new talk show once he left NBC. The Peacock Network then offered prime time specials, a daytime talk show, a cable talk show, and a even a half hour prime time talk show at 8PM.


Yet Jay asked for an hour long talk show at 10. This replaced several NBC dramas, and would be the first nightly televison show in over fifty years. Many predicted The Jay Leno Show would be a great lead in to The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. Other said it would be a great for NBC to compete with FOX, The CW, and cable networks by giving up the 10PM hour with ABC and CBS expected to follow suit if it was a success. Legendary television executive even predicted The Jay Leno Show would be the most significant to thing to happen to the industry in a decade.


They were all wrong, and both The Jay Leno Show and The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien were miserable failures lasting less than four to seven months. Some felt Conan was too much of a niche performer aimed at the college crowd to work as host of The Tonight Show while some others felt NBC should never have removed the more mainstream Leno from The Tonight Show in the first place. Both shows will be remembered as the biggest Tonight Show related flops since Tonight! America After Dark, a new oriented version of The Tonight Show that aired in the six or seven month period between Steve Allen and Jack Paar.


It is claimed that Jay Leno did not realize that Carson and Letterman were getting screwed by his agent Helen Kuschnick until the first year after Leno himself took over The Tonight Show. She was later fired as Tonight Show executive producer, the same amount of time it took for The Jay Leno Show to flop. Was Leno really an innocent party to all of this? Or is there something else people do not know about Leno and backstage politics?


Jay Leno has now signed on to return to The Tonight Show, upon Conan’s open letter expressing a desire to leave if The Jay Leno were moved to 11:35 and The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien moving 12:05. A couple questions still remain. Will Conan O’Brien move to FOX with a new talk show to compete with Leno, Letterman, and Jimmy Kimmel? The biggest question being did NBC try to screw both Leno and Conan? With Leno returning to The Tonight Show to make the best out of a bad situation. Or did Leno screw Conan to get The Tonight Show back?



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