Arts Desk

A Personal Vendetta: Leno, Oprah Against the Audience

A lot of people love Oprah. It’s just a fact of life. I spent many a day in high school plopped on the couch with my mom at four o’clock, generally sobbing at some person’s tragic life story. But today, I’m mad at her. (Oprah, that is, not my mom – my mom is awesome.)

On yesterday’s episode of Oprah, she interviewed Jay Leno to get “his side" of the late night show debacle. In an unusual move, she interviewed Leno in his The Jay Leno Show studio—either because her audience would have attacked him at her own studio, or because both she and Leno wished to be present at the scene of the crime. Before the interview actually took place, there was a poll on Oprah.com, asking viewers to vote whether they sided with Conan O'Brien or Leno. As Oprah announced yesterday, 96 percent of viewers thought Conan was in the right.

Oprah’s reaction to the numbers? Flabbergasted.

Now, I’m not saying Oprah is a stranger to bias. She isn’t, often priding herself on sticking to one side. She’s not afraid to flip-flop (poor James Frey… never saw it coming), and she’s not afraid to pool all her ever-fluctuating weight behind one person (she liked Barack Obama, and everyone knew it.)

Still, perhaps my own love for a 6’4” lanky ginger is what has me seeing red on this issue.

While Leno is not my favorite person by a long shot, I'd hoped that Oprah would straighten him out. From the various commercials for the interview, I assumed she'd be asking all the hard-hitting questions — was he surprised at how public opinion so quickly turned against him? Was he being selfish? She did ask these questions, and she did get Leno's answers. But Oprah — she did what I hate. She blamed the audience. She spent nearly 30 minutes of the post-show discussion with the viewers in her studio talking about how no one understands television, Leno just did what he had to do, and he was just reacting to a situation that was handed to him. Any audience-member who didn’t agree with Leno got an offhand remark about "not knowing how the industry worked," while anyone who agreed with him got a pat on the back.

As a talk show host, your currency is that your audience can relate to you, whether you’re on at 4 p.m. or at 11:35. Yesterday, for the first time, it felt like Oprah was saying, “You can’t have an opinion; you just don’t know.” Are we not allowed to be annoyed that a favorite late night host is off the air? Are we not allowed to blame Leno in the least for saying he never talking to Conan before retaking the Tonight Show slot? I may not have chaired a number-one show for twenty years, but the beauty of television is that I can form an opinion on anyone who appears in front of me. I don’t doubt that Leno is a nice guy and passionate about what he does, but that doesn’t mean I should be chastised for not agreeing with him.

For once, Oprah, we disagree.

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  • Klayol

    I thought Oprah was very balanced. She was surprised by all the anger at Leno but even still, was careful to ask him all the tough questions.

  • Andrea

    I like both Jay and Conan but personally I think Conan can be a little too goofy for mass appeal. His sometimes goofiness is what makes him appealing to a younger audience. I have only really found him HILARIOUS when I've been under the influence, but then again everything seems funnier then. I believe Conan will be ok. I think if he can get a show on Fox which aims for a younger audience things will go well.

    Either way, I do belive Jay was forced into "retirement" at the hands of Conan. NBC is the problem here. They are behind this mess because they didn't want to lose Conan to another network in 04. And Jay was correct on Oprah if CONAN had been geting the ratings this wouldn't have happened. He lost almost 50% of the market share which translates into lots of money lost for a network that cannot afford to lose more money! If Jay didn't take his job back, they would have found someone else to take the show. I don't think Conan can successfully compete with Letterman among an older audience. I understand people have preferences, but this was no personal. Jay Leno does not have the ability to say, ok I want the show back kick him out. Most likely the people who are on "Conan's side" were not regular Leno watchers and therefore won't make a big difference when he comes back, and sadly, most people didn't even watch Conan while he was on. So lets place blame where it belongs - the network and the viewers.

  • M

    I saw both show and agree with you completely. Oprah's post show was insulting.

  • Mike

    Caitlin, you're a dumb ass. Would you have liked Oprah again if she had sided with Conan? When you own your own show, you can then have it your way. Don't be so stupid!

  • http://www.facebook.com/amanda.hand Mandy

    Bravo, Caitlin, exactly what I've been thinking. I couldn't believe how Oprah completely jumped onto Jay Leno's ship after the interview. I didn't finish the online post-show Q&A because her angle seemed to be that Jay was wronged and anyone who felt differently was an idiot.
    The fact is that Conan has tons of fans who will wait indefinitely for his return to television, while Leno's fans only have to wait until March. The audience is the real loser in this story.

  • TrughSeeker

    The "You don't understand how television works" reply was offensive and patently untrue. We have been schooled, and we know that Jay took about 3 years to get to number 1, thanks to Hugh Grant. Conan was only given 7 months, and he was number 1 in the 18-49 demo. Not to mention, with Jay doing a watered down Tonight show an hour and a half earlier, I'm sure a lot of people felt they didn't need to see 2 tonight shows in one night. So when he keeps harping on the ratings, he should consider the fact that he had strong dramas leading into the affiliates prized news slots, Conan had, as I said, a watered down Tonight Show that was doomed from the start. NBC took surveys, they were skewed to make you say you wanted to see Jay at 10:00. I know this because I participated and I was waiting for the option to tell them that I thought Jay at 10:00 would be a disaster, the opportunity never came, because NBC did not want to hear the truth!
    Jay pushed Johnny Carson out (undeniably the best host the show ever had) and Letterman was right; if you are being disrespected, you take your show and walk it across the street to another network, you don't wait in the lobby for someone to die, whilst helpng to sharpen the dagger. Jay has no class. Oprah, who I used to really like, needs to get off her high horse and realize that everybody knows how television works - this whole debacle taught those who didn't already know. They were both hubris personified (Jay and Oprah)

  • Justa Notherguy

    Unfortunately for Mr. Leno (plus Mr. Gaspin, Mr. Zucker and the rest of NBC's executive ranks), this story just won't go away. The endless explanations and press releases don't seem to help much, either - much less, on-air interviews with soul-searching galore. And a big part of that is the history involved. Like Letterman said, 'I know it's not his (Leno's) fault. But isn't it funny how he always turns up at the scene of the crime?'
    .
    For any readers here who are too young to recall - or maybe just weren't interested in late night TV, at the time - your perspective on the current Leno vs O'Brien mess might be clarified by reading some background info on the original Leno vs Letterman feud. Here's the full story of how Jay Leno took over the 'The Tonight Show' hosting gig from long-time host Johnny Carson, way back in 1993.
    .
    http://bit.ly/6FjAQq (complete article - NY Times; 1994)

  • Tim

    Mike, you're obviously a Yale man. Do you have any comments rather than insults? Even CARSON was given the benefit of time. So, too, was Leno. O'Brien wasn't, and that is the jist of the problem here. THAT'S what Conan was pointing out, as was Caitlin. Leno was insulting, and the interview was tainted. Long distance tough guy, that's what you are...tough from a distance.

  • TomHandy

    How would Jay Leno's ratings have been if NBC had given Johnny Carson a show at 10 PM to basically do what he had been doing?

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