O’Brien said Tuesday that he’s “thrilled” by the startling news that Leno will stay with NBC and essentially do a prime-time version of what he’s doing now on “Tonight.”
“He is a huge part of my success,” O’Brien said during the taping of Tuesday’s show. “I am indebted to Jay Leno. And I love the idea that this relationship is going to continue.”
Yet to some degree, the relationship will inevitably change.
The top stars who might have otherwise been available to O’Brien at 11:35 p.m. may stay loyal to Leno and prefer a prime-time slot. Generally, about 50 percent more people watch TV at the 10 p.m. hour than at 11:35 p.m., according to Nielsen Media Research.
O’Brien, now based in New York, will also compete for guests in the same city as Leno. NBC is building a new studio for O’Brien only minutes away from Leno’s in Southern California.
Although Leno’s top producer Debbie Vickers and O’Brien’s top deputy Jeff Ross will continue in their same roles and they reportedly work well together, each has his or her own show as a priority.
“Do we fight to get the guests first?” Leno said. “Sure, we do all the time. But I’d rather fight with my family than with the other networks.”
Guests are less important on late-night shows than they used to be unless it’s a major, timely booking. Much of the first half of these shows is devoted to monologues and comedy bits. People tune in more for the hosts than the guests.
While NBC sees this is a win-win situation, for O’Brien it’s a little like finally being named the president of a company after years of hard work — only to find out that the current president is becoming chairman and will have more power.
NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker delivered the news to O’Brien on Monday. While there was some apprehension about how he would take it, the meeting went well, said Marc Graboff, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment. NBC said O’Brien would not be made available for an interview; his personal publicist and agency did not immediately return calls.
O’Brien said on his show that he had known about the deal for a while and had talked about it with Leno.
“I am thrilled,” O’Brien said. “I am absolutely thrilled that Jay is staying at NBC. He has been my lead-in on this program for 16 seasons. He is a fantastic lead-in.”
Graboff said that he believed O’Brien felt it would be easier to follow Leno in NBC’s lineup than to have to compete directly against him. It was considered almost certain that without Leno’s new deal, the late-night ratings king would take his talents to ABC or Fox.
Theoretically, the move would also make it possible for O’Brien to keep the show similar to what he’s doing now at 12:35 a.m. His current show, edgier than “Tonight,” is designed to appeal to a younger audience more likely to stay up late.
Graboff said on Tuesday that it’s still likely that O’Brien would try to change what he’s doing to reach a broader audience that’s available at 11:35.