‘The Tonight Show’ Firing: Why, What Now? : Television: As late as Monday afternoon, executive producer Helen Kushnick thought that her job was safe.


During Monday night’s taping of “The Tonight Show,” executive producer Helen Kushnick sat in her customary chair, overseeing the proceedings of NBC’s prestigious late-night franchise for the final time.

Today, there’s a photo of her at the main guard gate on the NBC lot in Burbank with instructions not to let her in.

NBC fired Kushnick on Monday afternoon, ending her tumultuous, four-month stint on “The Tonight Show,” during which the program became the subject of glaring media scrutiny for waging a booking war with its syndicated competition, “The Arsenio Hall Show.”


Kushnick, who managed Jay Leno from the time he was a struggling club comedian in the 1970s, had been named executive producer of “The Tonight Show” when Leno took over for Johnny Carson in May after Carson’s three-decade reign as the king of late-night television.

In a statement released Monday, Leno called Kushnick’s removal unwarranted. But the move was greeted with enthusiasm in many sections of the Hollywood community, where Kushnick had become the subject of closed-door criticism by personal managers, agents and publicists for pressuring guests to appear on “The Tonight Show” before making other talk-show appearances.

“We did the happy dance in the halls today,” said one publicity director at a major record label, who claimed Kushnick recently threatened never to book any of the artists on that label if Kushnick did not get her way. “You have no idea what my life has been like for four months.”

Kushnick could not be reached for comment. But she had said previously that she sees herself as the victim of a good-old-boys network in Hollywood that has cast her out because she is a strong-willed, independent woman. Last Friday, as her “Tonight Show” position was being threatened, she sent a letter of intent to file a sexual discrimination lawsuit to NBC executives and board members of General Electric, NBC’s parent company.

Kushnick’s critics, many of whom include alienated co-workers and friends, painted a different picture--of an individual who could not control the power that she was given. They suggested that--in Kushnick’s mind--if you were not for her, you were against her.

“I think she misjudged that this is not old Hollywood, this is new Hollywood,” said the head of an international public relations agency based in Hollywood. “While people may still be cutthroat, it’s not out on the table as it used to be.

“Nobody is completely holy in this business. There are power plays at every level, and on every show, in fighting for their ratings turf. She went too far.”

The turn of events that snowballed into Kushnick’s removal occurred last week when personal manager Ken Kragen went public with charges that, after he declined to pull country singer Travis Tritt off “The Arsenio Hall Show” to appear on “The Tonight Show” instead, Kushnick told him that Tritt no longer would be welcome on the NBC program. And the scheduled appearance of another client, singer Trisha Yearwood, was canceled, he said.

NBC watched a public relations nightmare unfold as Kragen told and retold his story to reporters, opening the floodgates for others to speak out about their experiences with Kushnick.

“Once Ken went on the record, other people were stepping forward and echoing what he said,” a top-ranking NBC executive said. “What was a few solo lines here and there became a chorus.”

The topper appeared to be when Kushnick chose Howard Stern’s nationally syndicated radio program last Friday as a forum to present her case. There, she refuted Kragen’s allegations and implicated everyone--from NBC executives to Brandon Tartikoff, chairman of Paramount Pictures, where “Arsenio Hall” is produced, to Hall himself--in a sexist conspiracy against her.

“The severity of the situation became very clear at that point,” the NBC official said. “This whole thing moved very quickly after that, even though it had been building for a long, long time. “

Fearing that permanent damage could be done to NBC’s late-night franchise, one of the most profitable programs in TV history, network executives later that day imposed a gag order on Kushnick and told her not to arrange any more bookings. They also issued an unusual statement saying that management changes on the show were being discussed.

Kushnick herself appeared to be among the last to know of her fate. She was apparently so secure with her job Friday that she hired a publicist for “The Tonight Show,” and by early Monday afternoon, Kushnick told a co-worker that the situation was settled and that she and Leno were staying. (She confided to one source that Leno would walk with her if she was fired.) But Kushnick was called into a closed-door meeting later and informed of NBC’s decision.

Although many people last week were eager to come forth with what they perceived as injustices suffered at “The Tonight Show,” in the wake of Kushnick’s firing there was a more somber attitude.

Harris Katleman, former president of Twentieth Television, said that he regretted the critical comments he made to CNN about her before learning that she had lost her job.

“I don’t want to kick her when she’s down,” Katleman said. “She lost a son to AIDS, her husband to cancer, and she had (breast) cancer herself. I feel badly for her.”

“I always found her to be fair with me. I found that she uses pressure, but so does everyone in television,” said Dick Guttman of the Beverly Hills public-relations agency Guttman & Pam. “This is a pretty competitive world, and people have to apply pressure.”

NBC has not yet named a replacement for Kushnick, but the network expressed confidence in the triumvirate of Leno, producer Debbie Vickers and co-producer Bill Royce, a defector from “Arsenio Hall,” to run the show. (Royce actually had quit on Friday over a dispute with Kushnick, and returned to the show only after she was fired.)

Leno, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, has remained curiously silent throughout the proceedings.

“Jay called me personally (Sunday night) to apologize,” Kragen said. “He was very nice. He said, ‘I just want you to know I had nothing to do with this. I feel real bad.’ I told him, ‘I never heard anything negative about you.’ ”

NBC was somewhat taken aback when Leno issued his statement Monday in support of Kushnick.

“Obviously, Jay felt compelled to publicly support someone who is and has been personally important to him,” said Sue Binford, NBC’s vice president of corporate and media relations. “Notwithstanding that, Jay has expressed to us his continued commitment to ‘The Tonight Show.’ ”

A source close to Leno, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “The image of Jay has been significantly hurt. Jay’s been hurt by all of it. He’s been hurt by her (Kushnick’s) attitude toward Johnny Carson. That’s not Jay’s attitude, that’s hers. Although he is very close to her personally, this is very difficult for him. In his own way he’s happy about it.”