|Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno on 'The Tonight Show":Vanity Fair|
Robert Morton had been David Letterman’s producer at both NBC and CBS, from 1982 to 1996. He retained many friends in the late-night world, but none closer than Jeff Ross, Conan O’Brien’s producer. The two men shared the shorthand of warriors who had been in the trenches. Morty, with Letterman, had experienced the tumultuous ride from 12:35 to 11:35. Now, as 2009 was drawing to a close, his good buddy Jeff was in the middle of the same bumpy transition with Conan; naturally, they had much to talk about.
It had been only six months since Conan assumed the host chair at The Tonight Show, the culmination of a five-year wait that began when NBC unexpectedly invoked term limits on Jay Leno in 2004, ordering an end to his long run at Tonight to make room for Conan, then following Jay on Late Night. Jay, still winning in the ratings virtually every week, had chafed with unhappiness as the hourglass dripped his evenings in the host chair away. NBC, fearing the financial consequences of Jay’s likely move to ABC, came up with an alternative at the last minute: relocating Leno into prime time. In an unprecedented move that NBC labeled a new paradigm for the troubled network-television business, it handed over its 10 p.m. hour, five nights a week, to Jay, effectively leapfrogging him ahead of Conan again.
But just three months into The Jay Leno Show, both programs were beset by ratings issues: Jay was floundering so badly at 10, NBC’s affiliates were ready to revolt; Conan, also suffering from the collapse of NBC’s 10 p.m. hour, as well as from the defection of many loyal Leno fans, had drifted steadily downward in the ratings and, to NBC’s great consternation, was often finishing almost a million viewers behind Letterman on CBS.
With these issues just beginning to bubble and stir that holiday season, Morty and Jeff Ross set a date to meet for dinner. Jeff said he would bring along Rick Rosen, who by that point had become more than Conan’s principal agent; he had become Jeff’s intimate friend.
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