Leno set to return to 'Tonight;' NBC willing to let O'Brien leave network, source says

By Lisa de Moraes
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

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.

NBC now appears willing to let Conan leave the network, said the source, who has knowledge of the situation but was not authorized to speak publicly about the fluid situation. Conan likely will be allowed to develop a show for another network before his NBC contract would have expired, and an agreement is expected to be reached soon.

But it also appears the network intends to kick Conan as he walks out the door. In an interview with the New York Times, NBC Universal Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said Leno was being returned to late night because of "an astounding failure by Conan," ratings-wise, on "The Tonight Show."

However, on Sunday, NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin had told a couple hundred members of the press that the network had to move Leno out of his 10 p.m. time slot 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 to 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.

In his New York Times interview, Ebersol referred to jokes about the NBC late-night kerfuffle being made this week by Conan and CBS's David Letterman as "chicken-hearted and gutless."

Conan joked at the top of his Thursday night show: "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."

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.

Conan's pulling out all the stops to book A-list talent for next week's show. He's already landed Tom Hanks for Tuesday -- very symbolic and kumbaya-ish, in that Hanks was Conan's first real big "get" when he took over "Tonight" seven months ago. (Hanks appeared on Conan's second show; his first night, Conan was saddled with guest Will Ferrell, who came on to plug NBC Universal's latest bad flick idea, "Land of the Lost.")

"I received a letter from the adult-film company Pink Visual offering me a role in one of their porn movies," Conan said Thursday in his opening monologe. "In the movie, I'd be having sex with a beautiful woman and just as we are about to climax, I get replaced by Jay Leno."

What's on at 10 p.m.

Meanwhile, NBC is maximizing its prime-time assets as it plugs the gaping holes in its schedule left in the wake of the demise of its Jay Leno Experiment.

Jay's best night was usually Tuesday, following the two-hour "The Biggest Loser." NBC has given that plum 10 p.m. slot to its new drama series "Parenthood" from Ron Howard and now starring Lauren Graham, among others.

"Law & Order: The Mothership" will take on CBS's "CSI: Miami" and ABC's "Castle" on Mondays, which was usually Leno's weakest night.

"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" takes 10 p.m. on Wednesdays, against ABC's "Ugly Betty" and CBS's "CSI: NY" -- neither series the biggest gun in those networks' arsenals.

Jerry Seinfeld is returning to NBC's Thursday lineup -- this time as executive producer and occasional celebrity on his comedy-reality series "The Marriage Ref."

And an expanded "Dateline" absorbs the 10 p.m. hour Fridays.

All these prime-time moves will occur after NBC's coverage of the Winter Games in Vancouver.

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