Jay Leno likened himself to a boxer who can take body blows and go the distance in an interview with Broadcasting & Cable, counterpunching criticisms about his ratings and his stranglehold on NBC's 10 o'clock slot on weeknights. He also said he would return to 11:35 p.m. — if asked.
"I enjoy being the underdog," Leno said. "Right now we've reached a level [and] we're not going below that. The numbers seem to tell us people [who] are watching the show are staying the whole hour; that's a good sign. I'm told if we can keep a 1.5 [rating], they make $300 million a year; this is what they say. So we're a little above the 1.5, we're doing OK."
Leno also had a response for industry people who'd like to see 10 p.m. again become the home for scripted dramas — such as John Wells, executive producer of Southland, which NBC canceled because it was too dark and gritty for its 9 o'clock time slot: "If I weren't doing this, it would be Dateline five nights a week or reality shows."
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Even though The Jay Leno Show is getting about the same number of viewers Leno got at 11:35 on the Tonight show, he's getting pummeled by his 10 o'clock competition and said he's frustrated by that.
"You just do what you have to do to get the situation better," Leno said. "You just keep tweaking. The one thing about TV is the longer you're on, the longer you're on. If you get past an initial point, then you're there, and people get used to it and they fall into a certain pattern. And I think that's the real trick."
He noted complaints have been few about the content of the show, and NBC brass is backing the show.
"I do kind of chuckle when people compare a show you do every night to a special that's on once or twice a year on HBO. We do a 14-minute monologue five nights a week; are all the jokes going to be gems? No. But they do OK," the 59-year-old Leno said.
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While he's frustrated, he's not fed up enough to walk away: "I go, 'OK, let me make myself strong by being the long-distance guy.' So I try to fashion myself on the fact that emotionally I can take it. Physically I tried boxing and I got the sh-- kicked out of me. But emotionally I can take body shots all day long and that doesn't really bother me."
Asked if he would return to his old time slot at 11:35, he answered: "If that's what they wanted to do, sure. That would be fine if they wanted to."
But he said he took no satisfaction from Conan O'Brien's Tonight ratings being lower than what he left behind.
"There is nothing that kills creativity more than bitterness."
Has Leno been unfairly criticized?