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Photo: ‘The Tonight Show’ with Conan O’Brien
If you know anything about television, you definitely know of, or have at least heard of, NBC’s ‘The Tonight Show’. It’s a staple of late-night TV that comes with a long, storied history of famous guests, performances, and hosts who have made the show as popular as it is today. Jack Paar and Johnny Carson brought the show to national stardom through the second half of the 20th century and Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon carried the show through the 2000s and 2010s. All of these hosts have made their mark and spent multiple years on ‘The Tonight Show’, except for one: Conan O’Brien.
Conan O’Brien, one of television’s most famous late-night personalities, was once a host for ‘The Tonight Show’ for less than a year between 2009 and 2010. His 7-month stint behind the eponymous desk resulted in network controversy, a public backlash towards Jay Leno, and Leno taking the hosting job back from Conan. This whole mess garnered lots of attention in the news and led to what is considered the most tumultuous time in the show’s long history. So let’s take a look at this whole conflict and why it’s even worth still talking about 11 years later.
The Rise of Conan O’Brien
By 2001, primetime television network NBC had a problem. Conan O’Brien was killing it with his late-night show ‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien’, which aired after ‘The Tonight Show’ at 12:35 am EST. He proved to be a great comedic talk show host and his humor was great at attracting the coveted “young male” demographic. As O’Brien’s contract was coming to a close, he began receiving offers from multiple network executives, notably at Fox, who wanted to make him the star of the network and to bump his salary up from $3 million to $21 million.
NBC wanted to keep Conan but was hesitant to raise his pay, especially anywhere near the amount Fox was offering. They offered to raise his pay to $8 million and ensure him as the next in line for ‘The Tonight Show’ if anything were to happen to Jay Leno. By 2004, when Leno’s contract was almost up, the network agreed to renew his contract for another 5 years on one condition: This was it, and afterward, Conan would take the reins and become the next host of the acclaimed program.
A New Beginning in Late-Night
Conan was welcoming to the news and Leno seemed to publicly accept the situation. But behind closed doors, he was outraged by what he considered to be nonsensical reasoning for his departure. He had the higher ratings and name recognition, why should he get the boot? With an end date set for leaving his beloved show, Leno began thinking about what his future might hold post-‘Tonight Show’. He expressed interest in offers from ABC and Fox, who hoped to scoop him up after his contract ended. But NBC, who had hoped to keep both O’Brien and Leno, fought to keep him at the network. Eventually, by 2008, Leno and NBC agreed to new negotiations. Leno would stay at the network and host a new hour-long variety show called ‘The Jay Leno Show’ in the 10 pm time slot.
This show would remain mostly unchanged from Leno’s previous hosting gigs, carrying similar skits and trademarks from his time on ‘The Tonight Show’. NBC was faltering in the ratings in this pre-news time slot, so they decided to change things up by putting a talk show in during a time when primetime dramas usually air. It was a bold idea that seemed smart enough to actually work. And it did at first. ‘The Jay Leno Show’ had high viewership in its first week, earning enough to impress the NBC executives. The reviews, however, were not kind, as critics felt the show was just a rehash of Leno’s previous shows and presented nothing new as a talk show.
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In contrast, Conan’s stint on ‘The Tonight Show’ earned praise, as many felt he fit right in as the show’s new host. The show was hit-or-miss in the ratings, with younger audiences tuning in and older people tuning out, and the network executives were beginning to worry. While ratings weren’t great, there was hope that this beginning lull would soon end and ‘The Tonight Show’ would regain its audience in due time.
Ratings Fall and an Ultimatum is Given
Sadly, it never did. ‘The Tonight Show’ steadily fell in ratings since its June premiere and by October, its viewership was much lower than before. The ‘Late Show with David Letterman’ began to take over the lead spot in nightly ratings. Meanwhile, ‘The Jay Leno Show’ was also experiencing low ratings, and this negatively affected the rest of the network’s nightly programming. Leno’s low ratings carried over to the daily 11 pm news affiliates, which in turn lowered ratings for Conan and Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Late Night’. The affiliates called to complain, and with NBC unable to fire Leno due to contractual obligations, they had to make a decision. How were they going to keep everyone happy and fix their ratings issue?
Their plan ultimately came as a pushback of their programs. Jay Leno’s show would move out of the 10 pm primetime slot and up to 11:30 as a half-hour program right after the nightly news. Conan’s ‘Tonight Show’ would now air at 12:05 am right after and go until 1:00 am, where Jimmy Fallon’s show would air. When the NBC executives told Leno and his team, they were satisfied with the results. Conan and his team, on the other hand, were less than pleased. O’Brien was afraid of Jay Leno causing problems for him and his show, and this all but confirmed it. On January 12, 2010, after news had broken out about NBC’s new nightly plan, Conan O’Brian released a statement to “the people of Earth”, where he voiced his displeasure with the decision: “I sincerely believe that delaying the ‘Tonight Show’ into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting… I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction,”.
With this, negotiations began, and Conan eventually left ‘The Tonight Show’ and parted with NBC after his final show on January 22, 2010. He earned a $45 million severance pay, meant to pay himself and members of his crew, and he left television for most of the year. ‘The Jay Leno Show’ was eventually canceled and Leno moved back to ‘The Tonight Show’ after Conan’s departure, where he hosted until his retirement in 2014. Conan eventually returned to late-night television with his TBS talk show ‘Conan’, a show that had lower viewership than his previous works but gave him more creative freedom. While there were many people on the side of Leno during this whole crisis, public support was overwhelmingly in favor of Conan, and the whole debacle left a big dent in Leno’s reputation and legacy.
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Many of the NBC executives involved in this mishap were soon fired or eventually left, and the network hoped to leave as much of this behind as possible. All of this left a large impact on the television industry, with the changing of hosts and NBC’s widely acknowledged mishandling of the whole event, and it changed the media landscape to how it is today. Without Conan’s departure and Leno’s rehiring, Jimmy Fallon might never have been the host of the ‘Tonight Show’ franchise. Conan would have never had the freedom he did on his TBS show and his career path would have been forever altered. While there are clear sides to the Conan and Leno debate, this time in television history is one that will always be remembered.
By Ben Ross
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Ben Ross is a writer at Hollywood Insider. He loves watching films and finding the message behind the art. With a love for movies and television, his goal is to understand as much as he can about anything he watches, and engage with readers about different topics related to the industry. He aims to find work that sheds a light on issues not really talked about and showcase it, feeling that it is important to understand the truth. Together with his readers, he hopes to celebrate beautiful stories in film and explore topics that are worth discussing – a value that defines Hollywood Insider.