Lenogate: A Conan and Jay Timeline

  • Publish Date: January 15, 2010
  • Comments: ↓ 13 user comments

UPDATES [1/21]: It's over! Final developments added for Jan. 21, 2010.
UPDATE [1/20]: New developments added for Jan. 20, 2010, and new video added to Jan. 19.
UPDATE [1/19]: New developments added for Jan. 19, 2010 (including the best video clip ever).
UPDATE [1/18]: New developments added for Jan. 18, 2010 and new video added to the entry for September 27, 2004. UPDATE [1/17]: New developments added for Jan. 17, 2010, and a SNL clip added to the Jan. 16 entry.
UPDATE [1/16]: New developments added for Jan. 16, 2010, and some monologue quotes added to the entry for Jan. 15.

A great American tragedy* unfolds in late night

Having a hard time keeping up with all of the new developments in NBC's misadventures in late night television? Not exactly sure who is coming or going, or when? We recap everything you need to know about Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien with this handy timeline. Warning: some of the material here is entirely true.

ImageThe once and future king

April 28, 1950

Jay Leno is born. What doctors first believe to be a twin later turns out to be a chin.

April 18, 1963

Conan "Coco" O'Brien is born to generally positive reviews. Surprisingly, there isn't a single tweet announcing his birth.

September 1987

Leno begins hosting The Tonight Show one night a week on an ongoing basis when regular host Johnny Carson reduces his workload. Meanwhile, David Letterman continues to host Late Night, which follows The Tonight Show on NBC.

June 1991

In a well-chronicled decision, NBC executives choose Leno, rather than the edgier Letterman, to replace Johnny Carson when he retires. An upset Letterman will soon leave NBC to launch a Tonight Show competitor for CBS.

May 25, 1992

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno makes its debut on NBC. America prepares for 17 years of Jaywalking.

September 13, 1993

Late Night with Conan O'Brien debuts at 12:35am on NBC, marking the on-screen debut for the former Simpsons writer. The show will receive poor reviews for its first several years before eventually drawing acclaim and a devoted fan base, while also calling attention to the plight of horny manatees.

July 10, 1995

Leno's Tonight Show tops Letterman's Late Show in the ratings for the first time, and will continue to do so for much of Leno's tenure as host. (Remember, this was an era where people also preferred to watch Caroline in the City, Touched by an Angel and Suddenly Susan.)

ImageWith a name like Zucker, it has to be good ... or not

December 2000

General Electric names Jeff Zucker the head of NBC Entertainment, giving him control over the network's programming. In a related move, NBC announces that it will slowly slide into obscurity throughout the remainder of the decade.

September 27, 2004

Afraid that his rising star might bolt for another network, NBC's Zucker announces that O'Brien will succeed Leno as host of The Tonight Show beginning in 2009. All parties appear satisfied with the decision, and Leno praises O'Brien that night on The Tonight Show:

December 8, 2008

Amid reports that Leno is unhappy about his forced retirement and is being wooed by competing networks, NBC announces that it is giving its star an unprecedented nightly 10:00pm talk show beginning in the fall of 2009 -- an idea reportedly originating with Zucker.

May 29, 2009

Concluding his 17-year run, Leno's final appearance as Tonight Show host -- which generates record ratings -- includes O'Brien as one of the guests.

ImageBack then, there was something to smile about

June 2, 2009

The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien debuts at 11:35pm. Despite strong initial ratings, the show will quickly fall behind Letterman's program. By the end of 2009, The Tonight Show's ratings are down by roughly 2 million viewers compared to the prior year with Leno at the helm.

September 14, 2009

The Jay Leno Show premieres at 10:00pm to middling reviews and strong ratings. The middling reviews will persist, while the strong ratings will not; on some nights, Leno's primetime ratings will dip below even those of his Tonight Show broadcasts, although he will experience a mild improvement during rerun season. For the next few months, NBC will continue to express satisfaction with the show's performance, citing its low costs. But NBC's affiliates will grow increasingly grumpy about having such a poor lead-in to their local news broadcasts at 11:00pm.

January 7, 2010

Industry website FTV reports that NBC is considering pulling the plug on its Leno at 10:00pm experiment, with network executives apparently divided over whether to cancel the show outright or stick with Leno in another capacity. Later that day, TMZ reports that Leno's show will go on hiatus on February 1st and return after the conclusion of the Winter Olympics in late night. That evening, The New York Times indicates that the network is planning to shift a shortened version of The Jay Leno Show to 11:30pm and bump O'Brien's Tonight Show to midnight. NBC initially denies all reports, but Leno addresses the issue -- repeatedly -- in his opening monologue:

I don’t think there is any truth to the rumors.  See, it’s always been my experience that NBC only cancels you when you're in first place. So we are fine. We are OK....


What does NBC stand for? Never Believe your Contract.

January 8, 2010

The internet literally (not literally) explodes with speculation and second-guessing as the Leno-O'Brien shake-up enters its second day. Time Magazine television critic James Poniewozik coins the term Jaypocalypse amid rumors that O'Brien could wind up at Fox. One expert suggests that the move is designed to placate affiliates so that they won't challenge the upcoming merger between Comcast and NBC Universal. NBC stresses that it wants to keep Conan at the network, while continuing to deny that Leno has been canceled; but TMZ reports that NBC has given its redheaded host an ultimatum: move to midnight, or you're gone.

January 9, 2010

The crisis moves into day three and the Zucker-bashing kicks into high gear, with the Los Angeles Times chronicling the executive's many "blunders" and reporting that the Leno fiasco could ultimately cost the network over $200 million. The overnight Nielsen ratings reveal whose side America is taking, at least for the moment: O'Brien's ratings are soaring, while Leno's haven't budged.

January 10, 2010

In a bit of serendipity, the late night shake-out is unfolding during the middle of the industry's winter press tour for television critics, and today is NBC's scheduled turn to present. In a well-attended session, NBC Entertainment head Jeff Gaspin (Zucker having been bumped up to CEO of NBC Universal five years ago) confirms that, although NBC is "completely satisfied" with Leno's performance, his primetime show will conclude on February 11. Gaspin also verifies that the network has proposed a Leno move to 11:30, followed by The Tonight Show at midnight.

January 11, 2010

It's day five of Conan Watch, and industry experts continue to refute Gaspin's claim the previous day that NBC's decision has nothing to do with the pending Comcast deal. Meanwhile, several late night hosts offer their own cutting analysis:

January 12, 2010

Now in its unprecedented sixth day, Crisis in Late Night takes a shocking turn when O'Brien officially refuses the move to midnight. Addressed to "People of Earth," the host's written statement says that "The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn't the Tonight Show." O'Brien also denies that he has received an offer from another network, and indicates that he still hopes to come to some sort of resolution with NBC. Later that night in his opening monologue, the host takes a more bitter tone:

Welcome to NBC. Where our new slogan is, 'No longer just screwing up prime-time.'


When I was a little boy, I remember watching 'The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson' and thinking 'Someday, I’m going to host that show for 7 months.'


NBC says they’re planning to have the late night situation worked out before the Winter Olympics start.  And trust me, when NBC says something – you can take that to the bank!

He also sampled the global response to the crisis:

Even better, however, is the reaction of another late night host. ABC's Jimmy Kimmel performed his entire one-hour broadcast in character as Jay Leno, with guest Chevy Chase stopping by to portray Conan O'Brien:

ImageChange they can't believe in

January 13, 2010

The Battle for Late Night Supremacy moves into its seventh day, beginning with wild speculation (later proved untrue) that Leno could bolt from NBC. The Tonight Show's ratings continue to soar amid the turmoil, and many late night hosts continue to take shots at everyone involved (especially NBC). Popular support for O'Brien on the internet reaches Obama-in-2008-like levels, as exemplified by the viral "I'm with Coco" poster and Facebook campaign (which, sadly, is lacking a corresponding YouFace page). TMZ and other media outlets report that O'Brien's contract does not guarantee him the 11:30pm slot, contrary to earlier reports. Both Maureen Dowd and Late Show host David Letterman join in the anti-Zucker chorus, although Letterman's take is funnier:

January 14, 2010

TMZ stuns the world with the revelation that NBC has offered The Tonight Show hosting gig to Leno, who will take over the one-hour, 11:30pm broadcast from O'Brien. Conan, according to reports, will receive a $30 million payout to leave the network -- which is less than the $40-$50 million NBC would have shelled out if it had been found in breach of the host's contract. Although none of these details are confirmed by NBC, rumors abound that O'Brien's final night as host of The Tonight Show will be January 22. Meanwhile, NBC goes on the offensive as executive Dick Ebersol slams O'Brien in an interview with The New York Times, calling the host "chicken-hearted and gutless" and adding, "what this is really all about is an astounding failure by Conan." The host responds with a few gems in his monologue:

There’s a rumor that NBC is so upset with me, they want to keep me off the air for 3 years. My response to that is, if NBC doesn’t want people to see me, just leave me on NBC.


Time sure does fly. Do you realize that a baby born on the day we did our first ‘Tonight Show’ is now a slightly larger baby?

Meanwhile, O'Brien puts his show up for sale on Craigslist, while Jimmy Kimmel goes on the Jay Leno Show to teach Leno how to do a Leno impersonation:

January 15, 2010 [Updated 1/16 at 2:20pm]

O'Brien's departure -- and Leno's return to the Tonight Show desk -- still hasn't been finalized, although negotiations between Team Conan and NBC are expected to continue Saturday morning. Talks have been contentious so far; Nikki Finke reveals, among other details, that Zucker has threatened to keep O'Brien off the air for three and a half years if he doesn't agree to move his show to midnight. Metacritic compiles a timeline of events related to the ongoing crisis while noting the popular misconception that the Chinese word for "crisis" also means "opportunity." Meanwhile, O'Brien to Fox, although a popular theory, will not happen so easily, reports the Los Angeles Times -- and the host's other options aren't immediately evident. During the Friday Tonight Show broadcast, O'Brien continues to rip his current employer:

In the press this week, NBC has been calling me every name in the book. In fact, they think I'm such an idiot they now want me to run the network.

Earlier in the evening, Leno acknowledges the negative response he is receiving in the media -- including from his fellow talk show hosts:

Sunday night on Fox is the premiere of a new show called ‘Human Target.’ I thought it was about me.


I’m getting beat up in the press. You know it’s bad when Tiger Woods calls to offer you PR advice.


Even David Letterman is taking shots at me. Which surprised me. Usually he’s just taking shots at the interns. I was stunned by that. It was a shock.

January 16, 2010 [Updated 1/17 at 11:00am]

Negotiations between O'Brien and NBC continue (but are expected to conclude by the end of the weekend), with estimates of the payoff to the host ranging between $20 million and $40 million. The catch? As TMZ reports, O'Brien will no longer be able to publicly trash NBC. Meanwhile, The Hollywood Reporter reveals that Conan's most famous characters and sketches will be staying with the network; NBC considers the masturbating bear, Pimpbot 5000, and even Conando to be its intellectual property. Later that night, Saturday Night Live opens with a sketch lampooning the week's events:

January 17, 2010 [Updated 1/17 at 11:00am]

Nielsen reports that The Tonight Show's ratings on Friday were 50 percent higher than the show's season average. O'Brien's exit -- and corresponding payoff -- still have not been finalized. The New York Times quotes former NBC (and CBS, and ABC) executive Fred Silverman as saying that the plan to restore Leno to 11:30 is a “Mickey Mouse scheme." But TMZ uncovers an email sent by Silverman in which he appears to suggest the original Leno to 10pm concept -- way back in early 2008. Silverman is best known for giving the world Supertrain, which was like The Love Boat -- except on rails, and a fiasco.

January 18, 2010 [Updated 1/18 at 6:45pm]

The ongoing crisis moves into the streets, as hundreds of Conan supporters rally in Los Angeles. Although a violent winter storm (or what non-Los Angeles residents would consider "light rain") means that turnout is lower than expected, O'Brien himself addresses the crowd, along with Andy Richter and La Bamba. Meanwhile, a final announcement from NBC is expected on Tuesday. On his Monday night show, Leno takes a moment after his monologue to discuss the situation, claiming that he was reluctant to even attempt the 10pm show but was talked into it by NBC. He also calls O'Brien "a gentleman and a good family guy."

January 19, 2010 [Updated 1/20 at 7:35pm]

It's day 13 of The Upheaval in Late Night, and an anxious nation is left disheartened by a shocking lack of new developments. The reason for a lack of a final announcement? NBC and Team Conan cannot come to an agreement on compensation for displaced Tonight Show crew members. Meanwhile, O'Brien has lined up an impressive list of guests for what are certain to be his final shows, including Tom Hanks and Will Ferrell for Friday's probable finale. And, if you still don't understand exactly what has been happening over the past two weeks, this video should clarify everything:

And, on The Late Show, David Letterman airs a promo for Leno's new Tonight Show:

January 20, 2010 [Updated 1/20 at 7:35pm]

Although Conan's buyout appears set at $32 million, TMZ reports that the final sticking point in negotiations between O'Brien and NBC is still the $7-$8 million severance package to be given to the current Tonight Show staff, although the two sides may only be $600,000 apart and a final deal could happen as soon as tonight. The New York Post reveals why NBC isn't with Coco: Leno's payoff would have been a whopping $150 million if NBC axed him instead. Vegas oddsmakers have posted the line on Conan's next move (Fox is the favorite), although if O'Brien does go to a different network, the Huffington Post explains that he should keep Will Ferrell away from the first night's broadcast.

January 21, 2010 [Updated 1/21 at 8:57am]

It's over! People of earth may now return to their regularly scheduled lives, as NBC and O'Brien issue an announcement indicating a final agreement has been reached. The network's total payout is $45 million, which includes approximately $33 million for the redheaded host, with the remainder going to his staff. As predicted, Friday will be O'Brien's final Tonight Show, with Leno returning to the late night program on March 1st. And, as part of the agreement, O'Brien will be free to pursue other on-air jobs beginning September 1st. We stand by our original prediction for today: Barry Manilow serenades O'Brien with a touching farewell song while appearing on The Tonight Show as the musical guest.

January 22, 2010

O'Brien's final night as Tonight Show host is a memorable one, as he is joined by surprise special guests [message clipped] -- unbelievable, we know! Leno is not invited to appear.

February 12-28, 2010

NBC televises 835 hours of the 2010 Winter Olympics in an attempt to distract viewers from the ongoing Leno-O'Brien controversy, while late night talk show experts go on a much-needed vacation.

March 1, 2010

A drama (Law & Order) airs at 10:00pm on NBC for the first time since the summer of 2009. NBC's post-Leno 10pm lineup includes the dramedy Parenthood (Tuesday 3/2), Law & Order SVU (Wednesday 3/3), and Jerry Seinfeld's The Marriage Ref (Thursday 3/4). After your late local news, Jay Leno hosts The Tonight Show for the first time in 10 months. America prepares for another 17 years of Jaywalking.

March 31, 2010

Despite the fact that the entire internet finds O'Brien preferable to Leno, the reincarnated Tonight Show with Jay Leno easily surpasses the ratings of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien.

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Comments (13)

  • chuck  

    i have been reading about this for about an hour now i dont watch to much tv so i missed most of what happened and i have come to the conclusi0n ill never get that hour back having said that who cares who goes to what time slot or network conan will be back on eventually leno will still have a big jaw and more money and cars then all of us and people will still be fascinated of the stupidest things (e.g. sienfeld the show about nothing)

  • Will  

    Well, here's the breakdown:

    We had a good balance of everything before this all started. Leno did great hosting the Tonight Show. It was his natural habitat, really. Conan's show, although rough at first, made a strong foundation for itself simply by its fans and its sketches, likely allowed only because he was on later at night (Masturbating Bear, anyone?). NBC promises Conan the Tonight Show. The thought slips away for a few years, and then finally seven months ago, it actually happens. NBC begs Leno to stay and not leave for another network. They give him his show at 10pm. Honestly, his sketches (exempting the classics) are at best luke-warm. Nonetheless, viewers watch, simply because it's Leno.

    Conan finds his home at the Tonight Show. He seems even more natural than Leno at 10pm. The skits still have the same feel to them, even evoking a feeling of nostalgia at times. Fans don't seem to want to watch Conan at 11:35; viewers drop. Not good for NBC. Their solution in the end? Who is the cheapest to pay off?

    It is disappointing that NBC would do such a switch (although, we find that they are not breaching contract). The key concept is how wrong it really is to rip Conan out of the Tonight Show, AS IT IS AND ALWAYS HAS BEEN AT 11:35, to let their prized possession Jay back in.

    My thoughts? Jay was ready to leave his show and NBC. He should have just packed his things and moved on. For this reason, I have no respect left for Jay Leno. Conan, whether you liked him or not, deserved to stay right where he was. I guess we all have to listen to Conan when he said, "If you don't want people to see your show, stay on NBC".

  • Arash Zafarnia  

    Thank you for compiling this timeline. I want to be in Conan's court but it's tough for me to defend him when his ratings were below mark. Also, learning that Leno's buyout would be 150 million changes my perspective. Once Conan returns, he should consider taking his show entirely online. He has a massive web audience and could have more attractive advertising opportunities, if packaged correctly.

  • The Jay Leno Show  

    [...] back! Up next...The Fallon Screw job! Jimmy Fallon is Lucky Conan didn't pull a Leno on him! Lenogate: A Conan and Jay Timeline [FINAL UPDATE 1/21] - Metacritic Here's a TIMELINE (above, great link for ya Faiz! ) from the beginning for FAIZ, since he didn't [...]

  • Endersdrago  

    What was NBC supposed to do? Let Leno go away so they can start finishing in 4th behind Lettermann, Nightline, and Leno. Already in some markets Conan's old Simpsons reruns beat his new talk show. While everyone on the internet might love him, most of America doesn't. So what do you do in such a situation?

  • Don  

    Hmm, I'm in the Conan demographics...

    I'm on the internet...

    And I can't stand Conan...

    I even like Leno...

    And I bet a bunch of people are now going to tell me a bunch of things that I should do and how I should think. Some free country!

    But so more for the authors "entire internets" comment. HAHAHA

  • Bye bye, Coco | She  

    [...] “Lenogate: A Conan and Jay Timeline” traces the late night squabble from 1950, when Jay “The Jaw” Leno was born to the present day. And beyond. « CBS’s “Survivor” wants you Leave a Comment [...]

  • Chesserz  

    I thought this link would be an interesting resource for the timeline and I do not know where else to send it


  • Daelin  

    The babyboomers who still haven't learned how to use the internet much less Tivo all prefer Leno...and they outnumber us.

  • William  

    I don't see what the big deal is. None of these guys are funny or entertaining in any way. The Tonight Show has been crap since Carson retired and will remain so no matter who they put behind the desk at this point. Someone call Dr. Kevorkian on these careers and the show, please; it's best just to put them out of their misery before everyone suffers more.

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