Jeff Zucker Defends 'Gutsy' Decision To Oust Conan, Blames Viewers For ConanGate


The earthquake in Haiti might be devastating news for most of the planet, but for NBC Universal chair Jeff Zucker on Charlie Rose last night, the natural disaster was more ... a tool to deflect attention from NBC's failures. Despite Zucker's distraction attempts, Rose pressed on, drawing a few interesting responses from Zucker's otherwise boilerplate exec answers.

Throughout the thirty minute interview, Zucker characterized himself as a fearless leader who is not afraid to "roll the dice" at the risk of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of failure. The CEO also was careful to define all of his late night decisions as business strategies. Some of the more exciting points in his defense, below.

On whether announcing that Conan O'Brien would take over the Tonight Show in 2004 was a mistake:

"I don't think so...What that allowed us to do was that kept our late night franchise of Jay and Conan intact for five-and-a-half additional years [...] So I think actually that was the right decision at that time and I have no regrets about that."

Whether Jay Leno was upset to have to give up the Tonight Show back in 2004:

"No, he wasn't angry about it. At that point if you go back to 2004, Jay understood it and accepted it, and he was part of that decision. Look, the fact is that Jay continued to be incredibly successful at 11:35 and, you know, in an ideal world he obviously would have liked to have stayed in that role."

Why NBC decided to keep Jay Leno in spite of his dismal 10 P.M. ratings:

"We had the ratings champ in late night for the last 14 years in Jay Leno there. [...]

Well, we thought that Jay would be a broader program at 11:35, and we thought that Conan would have a greater chance for success at 12:05 behind Jay's program. Sometimes you don't know these things until you try them. [...] We've made a business decision that's in our best interest."

Zucker's strength as a leader:

"I think it's the sign of a leader to step up and say, you know, when something's not working to have the guts to reverse it. And the worst thing you can do is to let that mistake linger. And really that's what we've tried to do here. We tried to correct something that didn't work. We're not in denial about that. We're not burying our heads. Leadership about taking chances and taking risks, and also leadership is about acknowledging when they don't work."

Having perspective about NBC's foul-ups:

"Charlie, a little perspective here as well. You just had on someone who we both know well who I grew up with the business in Katie Couric in the previous half hour where you talked about Haiti. So a little perspective on what's really -- the magnitude of what's important here. What you were talking about there was very important. People calling me names in the big scheme of things and people delivering death threats over a program moving back a half-hour is really incredibly out of context when you think about what you were just talking about."

Whose choice it was to bump Conan:

"Charlie, at the end of the day, the viewers voted. The viewers voted on what happened at 10:00 and the viewers voted on what happened at 11:35. And then ultimately it's left to us to make a business decision. And that's what we've done. But this is up to the viewers."

· Jeff Zucker Interview Transcript []


  • sweetbiscuit says:

    Hey Jeff: What's in Your Backpack?

  • HwoodHills says:

    “Charlie, at the end of the day, the viewers voted. The viewers voted on what happened at 10:00 and the viewers voted on what happened at 11:35. And then ultimately it’s left to us to make a business decision. And that’s what we’ve done. But this is up to the viewers.”
    And all those years (in school) I was blaming the dog for eating my homework.

  • HwoodHills says:

    But give him credit for going on. (Charlie Rose ain't no Oprah.)

  • JM says:

    It's nice to see Haiti is an excuse to deflect attention from any discussion of anything this week and to give the speaker an appearance of sincerity.

  • April says:

    First NBC loses Letterman, and Leno was involved. Now NBC loses Conan, and Leno is involved. I don't believe a word of Leno's. Conan is an honorable man who sticks to his beliefs about the Late Show. Leno could have refused to take Conan's show, but he didn't. No honor.

  • Martini Shark says:

    I had no idea that I was the one reponsible for this mushroom cloud of a disaster and that my reckless actions could actually destroy a network and thrust so many out of work. I am sorry guys, truly. I was only thinking of myself when I refused to tolerate watching an unfunny host put on a bore-fest of a show and phone-in his appearance every night. I'm such an ass.

  • Matt says:

    I don't get why everyone just ultimately assumes this is somehow Jay's fault and not Zucker's. I know they thought "If Jay just retired" but guess what: HE TRIED!!
    When Jay was forced out of the Tonight Show, his contract wasn't up, he asked to be released. And no I did not get this from the clip the other night. This is NOT "new" news. So instead of letting Leno retire and go do what he wants, NBC elected to keep his contract in tact. Had NBC just let Leno be released and Leno retired, we wouldn't be in this mess. However I believe NBC execs feared that Leno would jump to another network. So to prevent that NBC created the mess that is currently hitting your air waves.
    NBC attempted to ask Conan to move Tonight Show to 12:05, and have Leno host a half hour show at 11:35. Conan said no. So NBC feels that they'd rather lose Conan than Jay. NBC messed with something that was working because execs made rash decisions, six years ago and are now paying a huge probably $40MIL+ price.
    So this is NOT Jay's fault and NOT Conan's fault. And this is also NOT the viewer's fault. Everything was running fine with Jay at 11:35, Conan at 12:35, but because they felt Conan would not of resigned they chose to move forward with their plan. The only one to blame is NBC executives.
    Yes, maybe Jay should take the high road and retire, but you know what, he's in a contract and NBC doesn't want to lose him, and now NBC thinks moving Jay back to the Tonight Show to 11:35 and restoring Jay as host, will give them better ratings. Who knows, but this is ridiculous. NBC messed with something that was working and now look where its gotten them. That old phrase "Don't fix what nots broken."
    I'm a fan of both Jay and Conan, but this is neither one of their faults. NBC may win this battle, but
    Conan will ultimately win the war and will soon be back on TV in some form, via another station, movies, or another talk show.

  • Kip Cricket says:

    How does Conan get repaid for his company loyalty? The biggest, most public act of Hollywood treachery in memory.
    If it were really so simple as Jay Leno changing his mind, I can't see how Leno can still be lauded for being nothing more than a shill but Conan derided for a lack of loyalty to NBC. It's pretty clear now where Conan's loyalty has gotten him.
    Don't let NBC and Leno rewrite history! Check out the following link to read of Leno's deceit:

  • Karen says:

    No, what would have been a "gutsy decision" would have been to let Leno go and give Conan more of a chance. Returning Leno to the Tonight Show is playing it safe.