Why Jay Leno's Not the Villain in the Conan O'Brien, 'Tonight Show' Fiasco

Jay Leno's not the bad guy in the 'Tonight Show' fiasco: blame the execs.

ByABC News
January 14, 2010, 4:28 AM

Jan. 14, 2009 — -- Forget about Team Conan vs. Team Leno: the real war is Team Talent vs. Team Executives.

Jay Leno has been made out as the villain in the late night comic battle royal that NBC set off Sunday, when it announced it would cancel Leno's 10 p.m. ET experiment and move him back to his old 11:35 p.m. time slot because of sinking ratings and pressure from affiliate stations. Conan O'Brien, the redhead quick-witted funny man who inherited "The Tonight Show" from Leno? NBC figured he'd fall into line and be happy with a 12:05 a.m. start time.

But no, O'Brien's not having any of that. He put out a scathing, smoothly-worded statement Tuesday saying that he refused to compromise the integrity of the "Tonight Show" franchise by starting the show at a different time from its days under the late, great host Johnny Carson. Critics agree that O'Brien out-classed NBC, and his fans continue to corral around him on the Internet, tweeting their support for "#TeamConan" and bashing the bigwigs who denied him a fair shot at "The Tonight Show."

Yes, O'Brien's the underdog. Yes, O'Brien got a raw deal. Maybe O'Brien's the better comic. But none of that means that Leno's the bad guy. Those who know the 59-year-old comic well agree that he's the victim of network stupidity.

"People kid about him being the nicest guy in show business, but he very well may be. I think everybody who works with him loves him," said Don Sweeney, who served as "The Tonight Show's" musical director from 1975 to 1995 and wrote "Backstage at the Tonight Show: From Johnny Carson to Jay Leno."

"It's that network," he said. "The decisions that they've been making ... I hear things, I can't believe they do what they're doing."

"It was '92 when Jay took over 'The Tonight Show,'" Sweeney said. "They got rid of Bill Cosby, 'Cheers' and Johnny Carson within the same year, and [the executives] thought that was an achievement because they saved all that money they were paying to the stars. But then they fell into third or fourth place."

Sweeney and other late-night TV insiders agree that NBC's current fiasco has been brewing for decades. The problem, they say, is that television executives refuse to think freshly about the late-night comedy format. What worked for Carson in his heyday simply doesn't play today -- one need only look at the popularity of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report" to see that.