Jan 19, 2010 11:32 AM by Jamie Smith
The prime-time host, Jay Leno, offered his take on the impending NBC late-night shake-up in a monologue Monday, and defended "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien as a "great guy" who isn't to blame for the scheduling shuffle.
The NBC veteran also explained how he ended up in a prime-time slot, saying NBC executives told him six years ago they didn't think Leno could sustain his strong late-night ratings and that they would give O'Brien Leno's old slot because he had received offers from other networks.
"2004 I'm sitting in my office, an NBC executive comes in and says to me, listen, Conan O'Brien has gotten offers from other networks. We don't want him to go, so we're going to give him 'The Tonight Show,'" Leno said during his monologue.
"Don't blame Conan O'Brien. Nice guy, good family guy, great guy," Leno said. "He and I have talked and not a problem since then."
Leno said NBC executives told him he would succeed at the 10 p.m.(Eastern time) slot even though he thought it wouldn't pan out. "People will love you at 10:00. Look at these studies showing Jay's chin at 10:00. People will go crazy," Leno said he was told by higher-ups.
"Didn't seem like a good idea at the time," Leno said.
The comedian continued, saying that after both he and O'Brien began to slip in the ratings, execs again approached him with their new plan -- to move him back to O'Brien's slot.
"Four months go by, we don't make it. 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," Leno said.
"They come and go, 'this show isn't working. We want to let you go.' Can you let me out of my contract? No, you're still a valuable asset to this company," Leno said. "How valuable can I be? You fired me twice. How valuable can I be?"
Leno said that when O'Brien flatly refused to move his program to 12:05 as proposed by NBC, he was asked if he wanted the show back.
"I go, 'yeah, I'll take the show back. If that's what he wants to do," Leno said. "It looks like we might be back at 11:30. I'm not sure, I don't know."
The host again defended O'Brien, saying he "has been a gentleman" through the shuffle. "He's a good guy. I have no animosity towards him. This is all business," Leno said.
Also on Monday, NBC Universal chief executive Jeff Zucker told PBS' Charlie Rose that network executives believed they'd made "the right business decision" by sending Leno back to 11:35 p.m.
"You know, what Conan decides to do, obviously, is up to Conan, and we don't wish him any ill will at all," Zucker said. "He'll make a decision that's in his best interest, but we made a business decision that's in our best interest, and that's really what we're supposed to do. We're supposed to make hard business decisions without any personal feelings, and that's what we're supposed to do, and that's what we've done here."
O'Brien was reportedly in talks with NBC executives through the weekend, making a tentative deal to release him from his NBC contract, according to The Associated Press.
On Monday's "Tonight Show," O'Brien steered clear of Leno jokes, a departure from last week, when he blasted the prime-time host in monologues.
O'Brien did not extend the same courtesy to his employer. "Last night at the Golden Globes Julia Roberts said that NBC was in the toilet," O'Brien said. "NBC was upset and toilets were furious."
He alluded to press reports that as a condition of exiting his contract he might be required to sign a gag order preventing him from continuing to speak ill of his bosses. "Luckily, they aren't saying I can't sing anything negative," O'Brien joked, then belted out "moron, incompetent morons" to the theme from "Lawrence of Arabia."
"Of course, this has been a stunning couple of days for me," O'Brien added. "It's a bit hard to accept that soon I won't have a show, but Snooki and The Situation [from MTV's Jersey Shore] will."
Later, O'Brien paid tribute to fans who staged "Team Coco" support rallies Monday on his behalf in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.