NBC Universal President and CEO Jeff Zucker said Monday the company has made the right business decision in bringing former Tonight Show host Jay Leno back to his former 11: 35 timeslot, even as the move paves the way out for longtime NBC late-night personality Conan O'Brien.
"We think that Jay — who was the ratings champ in late night for almost 15 years — will go back to 11:35 and be successful," Zucker said on Charlie Rose. "What Conan decides to do obviously is up to Conan. We don't wish him any ill will at all."
Close to two weeks ago, NBC first proposed that The Jay Leno Show move from prime time to 11:35 and that The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon move back half-hour each, to 12:05 and 1:05, respectively. Unfortunately, O'Brien did not approve of the change of the show and released a lengthy and emotional statement expressing such last week. Since then, O'Brien and NBC have begun discussing a possible settlement that would allow O'Brien to leave the network and launch a new show somewhere else.
Zucker, 44, would not say if or how much he and others at the network had believed O'Brien would accept the move back, but said he had hoped the Tonight Show host would accept it in light of the show's disappointing performance. "I feel terribly that Conan isn't going to be at NBC where he was given the chance 17 years ago and was a homegrown star and that it will ultimately end this way. I don't feel good about that," Zucker said.
Zucker did not discuss the progress of negotiations between NBC and O'Brien and only said conversations are underway to release O'Brien from his contract. Zucker, however, did confirm to Rose that O'Brien's current contract did not stipulate a specific timeslot for The Tonight Show. "At the end of the day, if he couldn't accept his show being on 30 minutes later, that's his prerogative and so be it," Zucker said.
Zucker attributed the recent late night shakeup to "very strong" pressure from NBC affiliates — whose 11 o'clock local newscasts suffered from a weak Jay Leno Show lead-in. O'Brien also blamed his low ratings partially on The Jay Leno Show in his statement rejecting The Tonight Show's move to 12:05. However, Zucker said NBC had noticed problems with The Tonight Show from the beginning. "Even before Jay went on ... it was not as broad and successful as we had hoped it would be," Zucker said.
Although Zucker admitted in hindsight it was a "mistake" to move Leno to prime time and promote O'Brien to host of The Tonight Show, he said he had no regrets about putting the plans in motion back in 2004, when O'Brien was guaranteed the Tonight Show in five years. "It kept Conan from leaving for a competitor at that point. That was the right decision at that time," Zucker said. "The fact is, Jay continued to be very successful at 11:35. In an ideal world, he obviously would have liked to stay in that role."
Zucker has come under fire for his role in putting Leno back in late night and subsequently pushing O'Brien out of NBC. He told Rose he has received death threats because of the plan to move The Tonight Show back a half hour. Although some might speculate his job could be on the line as well, Zucker said he was "very comfortable" with his performance as well as that of his management team. He noted NBC Entertainment's "rough run" over the past five years but said the network has the right resources and the right people to turn it around. "We need to do a better job and I want to do a better job," Zucker said.