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

PHOTO Insiders Paint Leno as Mr. Nice Guy, Victim of Networks Poor PlanningGetty Images
Comedian Jay Leno is shown in this file photo./ Talk show host Conan O'Brien is shown in this file photo.

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.

Late Night TV's Identity Crisis

"Late-night TV in general is having a tough time, and usually, the executives are the last to get the news," said Bill Adler, co-author of "The World of Jay Leno: His Humor and His Life." "Late-night TV peaked with Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, Steve Allen and those people. After Carson died, it was not the same ball game."

"I think the network executives are lazy and they have not tried to come up with a new format or a new kind of programming for television," Adler said. "They just take the Johnny Carson format and repeat it, and they can't repeat it without Johnny Carson."

"The new generation is going for those other guys -- Colbert and Stewart," he said. "I have grandchildren who watch them. They're not interested in Leno. Leno has peaked as far as age is concerned. You reach a certain age and you can't reach the people you're trying to because they're too young in terms of humor."

While NBC talks the talk about wanting to attract younger viewers, it doesn't always walk the walk.

"Why does the network want to skew these shows towards a younger audience, and yet they dress their hosts like my father?" Sweeney asked. "What's wrong with an open-collar shirt and a sports jacket? They're trying to fool everyone and it ain't working."

Fittingly, O'Brien alluded to the network's obsession with the younger demographic during his Wednesday show.

"Hosting 'The Tonight Show' has been a fulfillment of a lifelong dream to me," he said. "I just want to say to the kids out there: 'You can do anything you want in life -- unless Jay Leno wants to do it too."

Who's to blame? More than one ABCNews.com source pointed a finger at Jeff Zucker, the wunderkind producer who rocketed through the ranks of NBC News and NBC Entertainment before reaching the helm of the network in 2007, when he became the president and CEO of NBC Universal. He's had a hand in most, if not all, of the network's major late-night dealings since 2000.

But Zucker's more intimately attached to this particular disaster. He attended college with O'Brien. The two endured a friendly rivalry at Harvard, where they both wrote for the Harvard Lampoon. According to PopEater.com entertainment columnist Rob Shuter, the fact that Zucker and O'Brien have been friends for decades makes Zucker seem all the more ruthless.

"Jeff is really close to Conan," Shuter said. "This ultimately lies in the hands of Jeff Zucker and he's got to fix this. If he doesn't, he's going to end up in trouble."

Insiders say Leno got as raw a deal as O'Brien.

"NBC was afraid to lose Conan, afraid to lose Jay. They want to keep everybody all the time," Sweeney said, comparing the hosts to cards in a game of poker. "But sometimes, you have to discard some of your cards in order to win. They don't want to do that."

What's Next for Leno?

"I'm sure when they moved Jay to 10 p.m. that they said 'Look, if it doesn't work out, we'll move you back to 11:35.' They didn't realize what a train wreck that would cause," he continued. "I always thought this would happen, I predicted it months ago, but I'm surprised it happened so soon. I thought they'd give them both at least a year."

Yet, because much of the public perceives Leno as a selfish old stalwart who doesn't want to give up the stage, Shuter thinks Leno may follow O'Brien's lead and walk away from NBC to save face.

"Sometimes, perception becomes reality. And the perception is that Jay got Conan fired," he said. "Jay is Mr. America. He's Mr. Nice Guy. He's not edgy like Letterman, he may not be witty, but he's loveable Jay. He doesn't want to be thought of like that."

Sweeney, Adler and Shuter agree that it's entirely possible Leno's feeling out offers from other networks before deciding whether or not to stay at NBC and regain his old time slot at 11:35 p.m. come February. But each insider sees a slightly different outcome:

Sweeney: "Jay will do whatever the network wants him to do. He's there to make them happy. Point him in the right direction and he'll do it. I'm hoping he goes back to 11:35."

Shuter: "NBC is up Leno's a**. If this man wants a cheese plate in ten minutes, it'll be in his dressing room. This guy can be a bigger diva than J-Lo for the next ten years. They have to keep him. They have no safety net."

Adler: "What else is he going to do, drive automobiles? The reality of it is that he does stand-up comedy. He sits behind a desk and interviews people. If he doesn't do it with NBC, he'll do with someone else."

Bottom line: Leno will bounce back. So will O'Brien, though Shuter wonders if he'll take a break from TV for a while after all of NBC's nastiness.

And finally, it's not #TeamConan or #TeamLeno. If you really care about late-night comedy, tweet #TeamTalent. O'Brien and Leno could both use your support.

ABC News research associate Melissa Lenderman contributed to this report.