How NBCU's Steve Burke Cleaned Up a Messy 'Tonight Show' Transition (Analysis)

Steve Burke Jay Leno - H 2013
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Steve Burke Jay Leno - H 2013

“Bob shouldn’t have done it,” a top NBCUniversal executive says of an angry email from NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt to Jay Leno. Now NBC has secured Jimmy Fallon while gambling that Leno won't go to Fox.

Having made it official that Jimmy Fallon will take the reins of The Tonight Show in spring 2014, NBC hopes it has managed to execute, if not an orderly transition, at least a far less messy public debacle than occurred when the network temporarily put Conan O’Brien in the chair four years ago.

But such significant institutional shifts always are difficult, and this one might have left some collateral damage -- perhaps most significantly to NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, who fired off a late-night email late last month objecting to Jay Leno’s on-air jokes aimed at NBC’s weak ratings. Greenblatt's complaints not only upset the comic at a delicate moment but created public embarrassment for the network.

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“Bob shouldn’t have done it,” a top NBCUniversal executive acknowledges of that email. “He was just: 'Really, Jay? Really? After all we’ve been trying to do and we’re down in the dumps?’ ” That exchange, which prompted more virulent on-air jokes from Leno in which he referred to NBC executives as snakes and backstabbers, threatened to upset what NBCUni had hoped would at least appear to be a graceful retirement on Leno’s part.

Greenblatt and NBC declined comment.

While NBCUni has said that it was always understood that Leno would transition out of the Tonight Show chair when his current contract expires in September 2014, clearly the famously hard-working comic would have liked to linger for at least another year. “He wasn’t panting to go off the air, but he knew it was a good time,” the NBCUni executive allows. Still, Leno’s top ratings in the time slot -- as well as the fact that NBC is not No. 1 in any other daypart -- would have seemed to justify his hopes that the network would let him remain for a time.

But NBCUni had other agendas: to secure the talents of Late Night's Fallon, whose own contract was up in 2015, and to compete with the aggressive and younger-skewing Jimmy Kimmel, who has improved his ratings on ABC since moving from 12:05 a.m. to the 11:35 p.m. slot in January.

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Getting Leno to accept that his time had come never was going to be easy, but obviously those efforts were not aided by Greenblatt's emailed reproach. Indeed, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke not only instructed Greenblatt to go to dinner and patch things up with Leno (Greenblatt had canceled a previously planned meal), but Burke then took the lead himself.

Sources say he called Leno and told him, “This is uncomfortable for everybody.” At that point, according to the top NBCUni executive, Leno replied, “We just need a plan.” Burke offered to fly to Los Angeles on March 24 to smooth matters over. In that meeting, Burke told Leno, in effect, “There’s no way for this to be handled properly if you don’t embrace it.”

NBCUni's push was based in part on a calculation that Leno would not readily find a new home that would make him a threat on another channel. According to the executive, the company calculated that the most obvious possibility -- Fox -- would not seek a deal with the comic. “I find it hard to believe that if they couldn’t clear Conan [with their affiliates] that they would do it with an almost-65-year-old and give him a five-year contract,” the executive says. (Leno turns 63 on April 28.)

This executive adds that at his age, Leno's appetite for jumping to a competitor might not have been what it was even a few years ago. NBCUni expects Leno to continue doing stand-up and possibly some NBC specials following his Tonight Show exit. Whether the comic has other notions is unclear. It also is unclear whether he would be required to stay off a competitor’s air until his contract with NBC ends in September 2014, should he find a suitor. “There are a lot of things to do,” Leno told The New York Times on Wednesday. “I’ve done this job for a long time, and I really enjoy it. Would I do it again? Believe me, the phone’s not ringing off the hook. It will be nice if people seem interested. But I’ll let it sit where it is."

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NBC plans to celebrate Leno during his last two months as Tonight Show host, and NBCUni plans to create “a dedicated space” on its lot to recognize Leno’s great significance to the network.

NBC will consider running a late version of Tonight during the upcoming Olympics to launch Fallon or at least run clips featuring Fallon during the games. Between now and then, the network hopes Leno and Fallon will do more skits such as their recent rendition of "Tonight" -- with appropriately altered lyrics -- which signaled for the first time that Leno was prepared to meet his fate.

The company hopes to announce a new host for Late Night at the May upfront presentations in New York, though the position belongs to Seth Meyers of Saturday Night Live unless “something goes awry,” as a well-informed source puts it. NBC declined to comment on its Late Night plans.

With the Fallon transition set, one question is whether Greenblatt inflicted damage to himself with his angry email to Leno. On April 1, Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart -- during a tirade against Egyptian leader Mohamed Morsi for arresting a satirist, said: "Silencing a comedian doesn't qualify you to be president of Egypt. Just President of NBC. Talk about a once-proud empire. Whatever problems you have in Egypt, at least you didn't greenlight Smash."

Despite the misstep, however, the top NBCUni executive says the company remains “100 percent” supportive of Greenblatt.


Twitter: @KimMasters