The Tonight Show: Things Don't Always Go as Planned
The peacock was feeling the heat.
Affiliate station owners were grumbling to NBC that The Jay Leno Show, the comedian's new prime-time project after passing the Tonight Show torch to Conan O'Brien, was bad for ratings and would turn off viewers. Even worse, Leno's show wasn't on the air yet.
High-ranking NBC exec Jeff Zucker, having earlier turned around The Today Show, offered a deal. Leno takes Conan's slot but is shortened to 30 minutes. Conan keeps The Tonight Show but moves to midnight.
The deal: It came together like an “after-school special on the Don'ts of leadership transitions,” noted HR consultant J.P. Elliot.a The result: A PR nightmare dubbed The Jaypocalypse. Public trash-talking by all parties. And the defection of a serious chunk of viewers with strong brand loyalty and purchasing power.
“So what does NBC do? If you are making buggy whips and no one is buying buggies anymore, do you keep making buggy whips?”
Only one day after the deal was announced, Conan released his earnest “People of Earth” statement, quickly winning fans, a visible majority of fellow comedians, and, seemingly, almost everyone on Twitter. In contrast, Leno often appeared befuddled in interviews, with only Jerry Seinfeld and Oprah supporting him in the press.
The aftermath: Eight months later, Leno was back behind the Tonight Show ...