Dinner with Mavis: Reviewing The Tonight Show conflict

Curator's Note

 Go with me through a short journey in time. The trip begins on September 27, 2004, the 50th anniversary of The Tonight Show. Jay Leno announces his pending retirement. No, he won’t be going off the air by the end of the year, not even the end of the season. He will be retiring, he says, in five years. Tonight he names his replacement who will take the throne of late night television in 2009; Conan O’Brien. During the episode, Leno shares his promise to wife Mavis that he will take her to dinner before he turns sixty.

Although the early announcement seemed odd, most of the audience accept the transition at face value. But, as we are to discover later, NBC and then Executive for Entertainment, Jeff Zucker, were in negotiations with O’Brien whose contract was due to expire. Fearing O’Brien would jump ship to a different network, losing NBC the next great late night talent, Zucker and company conjured up this five-year plan to keep the star. Although the transition wouldn’t take place for another half-decade, no one stopped to ask if Zucker had a crystal ball. A decision like this was unprecedented.

Even though O’Brien’s ratings floated atop the competition, it was Leno’s new Jay Leno Show at 10 o’clock that waned, leaving local affiliate stations concerned with a weak lead-in to their late newscasts. The network was in a conundrum. Wanting his cake and to eat it too, Zucker (now president of NBC) couldn’t risk losing an up-and-coming talent in O’Brien, nor did he want the competition to get their hands on the star.

As it turns out, NBC lost on both counts. After only 146 episodes of hosting The Tonight Show, Zucker pulls the plug on O’Brien’s new show, paying the host and his staff to leave the network, a $45 million mistake five years in the making. Leno returns to the late night spotlight once again and all is well in the universe. Zucker’s crystal ball surely was cloudy that night in 2004. One has to wonder if Mavis got her dinner.


How serendipitous that this comes the day before I present on Leno at PCA about his Oprah interview during this whole furor!

The title of this entry really hits on how Leno tried (and still tries) to circumvent the corporate and ethical logics on the whole matter and bring it back to his persona.  When he talks about "taking Mavis out to dinner," he stresses his strong martial status (something that would aid his public image even further years later when David Letterman's shenanigans hit the public consciousness).  Hey viewers, it's Jay Leno:  great husband!  By suggesting the dinner is long overdue, he's tongue-in-cheek sugggesting that heck, he's been working so hard and been so busy, it hasn't happened yet.  Hey viewers, it's Jay Leno:  blue collar working man!

The insincerity of this speech seems more evident with hindsight; this is almost like watching a political press secretary trying to sell their boss' plan when they themselves do not believe in it.  We now, of course, all know that Leno was not gung-ho about any of this, and the discomfort shows more with hindsight and analysis.

On the one hand, it's baffling is that NBC didn't foresee that this was all going to lead to a big, big mess. If Letterman vs. Leno '92-'93 taught us anything, it's that you can't please two masters.

However, Bill Carter also raises the valuable point that while it did cost a big bundle of money to make Conan go away, by brokering the five-year deal, they kept Conan away from FOX and kept them out of the already crowded late night game.  By the time that Conan was a free agent again, FOX was no longer interested.  So in that sense, maybe Zucker's crystal ball wasn't as cloudy as we think?

 My brother and I would watch The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien when it was on the air. At first I was skeptical about The Tonight Show and how good it was because I always regarded it as a show for an older crowd. Conan worked to bring in a younger audience – to me he felt more relatable than Jay Leno. In the video where Jay Leno announces his retirement he seems like he’s trying to humble about the situation but in the end we all know that he never wanted to leave the show at all. The video makes him seem very respectable but after he was back on The Tonight Show I couldn’t respect him for taking away Conan’s job after he “willingly” gave it to him. In his message about retirement he said he didn’t want there to be fights over hosting the show and didn’t want friendships to be destroyed but that’s exactly what happened between him and Conan. I don’t think it was right that Conan had to leave The Tonight Show. In my opinion instead of firing Conan O'Brien who was doing a great job, they should’ve cut Jay Leno’s new show since the ratings weren't great. After Conan left I stopped watching the show and have started watching his show on TBS, Conan. Not only did NBC lose Conan O’Brien, but they lost the younger audience that watched his show. 

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