Today's chat between two TV titans, Oprah Winfrey and Jay Leno, was a bit of a meeting of the minds.
It seemed that Jay believed talking to Oprah would be a good move because Oprah would be at least somewhat sympathetic because she gets the workings of TV. And since Jay wasn't there to take any part of the blame, he needed some one to help explain to those on Team CoCo.
The closest Jay came to an illumination of his action was basically 'I did it for my staff.' An interesting approach that Oprah didn't seem to totally buy.
The show started with the tape of Jay's 2004 statement in which he said that The Tonight Show was a dynasty: 'you hold it and you hand it off.' (Oprah never asked him specifically about that comment.)
Jay said that until NBC approached him that year about moving aside there had been no prior discussion about Conan taking over. He said being asked to leave by NBC "broke my heart. I was devastated. It's the only job I ever wanted."
Jay said that NBC execs said Conan's people wanted to make the announcement five years early to make sure Jay didn't back out. Jay didn't dispute Oprah's question that the shift began because Conan wanted The Tonight Show.
Jay admitted that he told a 'white lie' when he said he was going to retire. He actually assumed he would go to another network. He said NBC got him to end his show 7 months earlier than his contract to preclude him from going elsewhere. He pointed out that 175 people work for him.
NBC came to him with the 10 p.m. plan in the fall of 2008. He said he didn't really want to go to another network because it was a lot of work to go to another network; he's comfortable at NBC. He admitted that he felt disrespected by NBC's action, although he wouldn't say whether it was against his better judgment to take the 10 p.m show. He said he thought it was an interesting challenge.
Jay said he believed Conan had what it took to take on The Tonight Show. He said he talked many times to Conan after the 2004 announcement and he had no hard feelings toward Conan. He told Oprah that the primetime show sort of made up for losing The Tonight Show. But it was tough. Competing against David Letterman was easier, you could look at Letterman's bookings and plan against that. That's harder to do against CSI, he said.
Oprah displayed the Time magazine cover that called him the future of TV. Jay said it was fair. He said he also read the Entertainment Weekly article that called his show the biggest bomb in TV history.
Jay said his show didn't work because basically it was a late night show at 10 p.m. He said his ego wasn't bruised; he felt bad for the affiliates that were suffering and his staff. (This would have been a good place for Oprah to ask whether he thought his show was funny and whether he thought it seemed cheap, the two criticisms most critics made.)
Although he thought about the 175 people on his staff, Jay said he hadn't thought about the thousands of unemployed people who worked on the shows that lost that 10 p.m. slot until others mentioned it.
Jay said he thought the show had enough time to prove itself. He said he chuckled in disbelief at how much press he's gotten for a failed show. He said he didn't think he was selfish. 'It all comes down to numbers," he said. He and Conan faced a perfect storm. They were two hits shows, number one in their slots. What were the odds that both would do poorly?
When his show was cancelled by NBC, Jay said he asked to be released from his contract the very same day. NBC said no, that he was still a valuable asset. Oprah asked why he didn't just walk away, wondering if getting canned twice was the 'ultimate disrespect." No, Jay said, because this second time it made sense; he ratings weren't good.
Instead, he agreed to NBC's 11:35 plan; that he do a half-hour at that time and Conan do The Tonight Show at midnight. He said NBC said Conan would go for it. Jay said he didn't call and talk to Conan about it; it wasn't his place. Then Conan released his public statement, saying that moving The Tonight Show to midnight would be destructive to the franchise. Jay said that Conan's ratings were already destructive to the franchise. (Here, I think, Oprah might have pointed out that in his first 7 months Jay was behind Letterman, so maybe 'destructive' was a bit tough on Conan.)
Oprah brought up the Jimmy Kimmel interview and Jay noted that he got 'sucker punched' by Kimmel's comments. Jay pointed out that he could have edited Kimmel's remarks since it was Jay's show, but he said when you make a living making fun of others, you don't whine or complain when the tables are turned.
He said he hadn't talked to Conan, that it didn't seem appropriate and he wanted to let things cool down. He said he never thought he was taking Conan's dream away; it was an affiliate decision to bring him back. When Oprah asked him about retiring he said "If you're a gunfighter you want to die in the street." Oprah offered that maybe the gunfighter would want to die at home in bed. Jay than said Oprah was just like him, he expressed doubt that she was really retiring, that she would be back. Oprah said that the issue is really one of identity, who are you without this show. "I am a stand up who happens to have a TV show." Jay pointed out that he lives off his standup money, and banks the TV money.
Jay said he took no responsibility for Conan's disappointment. "There's always someone waiting to take your job."
Oprah brought up Letterman's comments and said she thought Jay's remark about Letterman's infidelity was beneath him. Jay said when a cheap shot is thrown at you, you throw one back, but that was all he said. (Oprah didn't point out that while Letterman talked about Jay and the show, Letterman talked about David's personal life.)
Jay said he felt he'd been unfairly treated by the media and he would work hard to rehab his image. He said he hoped Conan would get a job and they would all compete and the best man would win.
He pointed out that anything NBC did would be better than what they did, including shooting everyone. He said he never thought he'd be asked back to the Tonight Show (really?). He said all the attention to his 10 p.m. show and it's dismal ratings took attention off of Conan's bad ratings; he thought if his show didn't exist, Conan's ratings would have been the story.
He watched Conan's final show and thought it was good.
Jay said the whole thing was embarrassing, but he always felt he was doing the right thing. He was offered a great job and he said OK, who would take that job. But he did have doubts after the reaction. Am I not a good guy?
He asked Oprah whether she felt differently about him and Oprah said she was surprised that people were against him. She said she thought it was because people don't understand how TV works. It was surprising to her that people thought he stole the show from Conan.
Still, Oprah pushed him on the retirement issue. Why didn't he just leave and not do the 10 p.m show? And after that show was cancelled why didn't he just walk away? Jay said he felt retiring would be the selfish thing to do. "The minute you can't do the job, they top you on the shoulder." He said Conan was fired because of the ratings, and he was just not sure what he, Jay, could have done better. When Oprah said, how about retiring, Jay said that would have been an ego decision. Really, said Oprah. Yes, Jay insisted.
Oprah asked why he didn't do what Conan did, take a pay out on his two-year contract that would cover his staff. Jay said simply he could have, but he didn't.
In the name of balance, Oprah said that she reached out to Conan and his people said it was not the right time. She says her couch was open any time he was ready to talk.