Leno back on 'Tonight' shift? Well, Conan passes on 12:05 start

By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, January 15, 2010

Jay Leno is set to return to "The Tonight Show," unless Conan O'Brien has a last-minute change of heart about hosting the show in a later time period, according to an NBC source.

The source, who has knowledge of the state of negotiations, was not authorized to speak publicly about the fluid situation.

On Tuesday, Conan announced he would refuse to host "The Tonight Show" at 12:05 a.m., which is where NBC said it's moving the franchise when its coverage of the Olympic Games concludes at the end of February.

"There's a rumor that NBC is so upset with me, they want to keep me off the air for three years. My response to that is if NBC doesn't want people to see me, just leave me on NBC," Conan said at the top of his show Thursday.

On Sunday, NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin had told a couple hundred members of the press that the network was bailing on its Leno-hosted 10 p.m. weeknight program after TV station executives started threatening to preempt the show in large numbers. Their rebellion was stoked by the November sweeps ratings, which showed how much damage Leno's show had done to their late local newscasts.

It was decided then that Leno would be moved back to 11:35 p.m. to host a half-hour show, followed by the Conan-hosted "Tonight" at 12:05 a.m. and Jimmy Fallon's show "Late Night" at 1:05 a.m.

At that time, Gaspin said he fully expected all negotiations to be wrapped up by Feb. 12, when NBC's coverage of the Games begins.

"I can't imagine we won't have everything in place before that," he said.

But NBC started talking to Leno about Plan B when Conan put out his statement (addressed to "People of Earth") Tuesday, in which he said " 'The Tonight Show' at 12:05 simply isn't 'The Tonight Show.' . . . I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction."

Now, ironically, it looks like "The Tonight Show" at 11:35 p.m. may have been saved.

NBC denied that a deal with Leno to return to "The Tonight Show" at 11:35 p.m. had been signed.

Meanwhile, if you haven't yet caught Conan hosting "The Tonight Show," you won't want to miss next week, which will probably be your last chance. "Tonight" was already scheduled to go on hiatus the following week when the Olympics coverage begins.

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