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Jay Leno will headline the White House Correspondents Dinner

By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, January 22, 2010; C04

The White House Correspondents Association has picked Jay Leno -- also known as this week's most publicly unpopular stand-up comic -- to headline the White House Correspondents Dinner in May.

An NBC rep confirmed the invitation to The TV Column.

To be clear, the association asked Leno weeks ago -- when he was simply the host of a prime-time show that was failing five nights a week. But when he appears at the annual Washington bash -- which over the past few years has become a Hollywood petting zoo -- Leno will be the guy who pushed aside Conan O'Brien to become the newly returned host of NBC's "Tonight" show. He has also been the butt of pretty much every other late-night talk-show host's jokes for the past couple of weeks.

In case you've missed the story, Leno retired from NBC's late-night show last year. But instead of spending more time with his cars, he hung around to help NBC with its Program to the Margins campaign. He was given responsibility for doing the best darned 10 o'clock comedy show he could, so as to help out Conan O'Brien -- the guy who had pushed him out of the "Tonight" show gig -- by feeding Conan the biggest possible audience into the late-night time slot. That didn't go so well -- imagine!

NBC suits responded by announcing a demotion for Conan -- his "Tonight" was being moved and would, instead of starting at 11:30 p.m., start the next morning, so that they could give Jay back his old 11:35 p.m. "Tonight Show" start time. Conan refused and now Jay's got "The Tonight Show" back. And that is how things are done in Hollywood.

Here's what Jay had to say on his soon-to-be-ex prime-time show Thursday, about NBC's announcement that day that it had wrapped up a deal to show Conan the door:

"NBC and Conan O'Brien made an announcement earlier today as many of you know Conan is leaving the network. His final show airs tomorrow night.

"I have chosen to stay on the Titanic. I don't believe the iceberg is that big, the biggest ship, this ship will never sink and Kev . . . when it does, Kev as it's sinking you will play us . . . you'll be here for us so. Apparently we'll be back on 'The Tonight Show' March 1 after the Olympics, so that's pretty much where we are."

Conan is now officially the shortest-serving host of America's longest-running late night talk-show franchise, at a cost to NBC of about $45 million under terms of a deal signed Thursday.

Friday is O'Brien's last "Tonight Show," clearing the way for Leno to return to the program he hosted, and kept in first place in the ratings, for 15 of his 17 years on the job.

Minutes after the two parties sent up the puff of white smoke Thursday morning, signaling the network's deal with Conan was finally done, NBC spewed out another statement saying how "pleased" it was that Jay was returning "to host the franchise that he helmed brilliantly and successfully for so many years."

Jay has signed a new multi-year deal to host "The Tonight Show" which -- like his previous contract to host it -- has 11:35 p.m. time-slot protection. Clever Leno!

It appears NBC will try to save some money by having Jay host the "new" "Tonight Show" from a worked-over version of the set from which he has been hosting his failed 10 p.m. program.

Meanwhile, Conan's deal with NBC allows him to mount a new late-night show for a competing network as soon as Sept. 1. It remains to be seen whether there will be any takers.

NBC is paying Conan about $33 million, which NBC execs told The TV Column is the agreed-upon compensation for the remaining 2.5 years on his contract; they declined to elaborate. NBC also is paying about $12 million to close out contracts it had with others who worked on the show.

NBC will pay an additional $600,000, over and above the $12 million, in severance to "Tonight" employees who are being thrown out of work -- many of whom had moved from New York, where Conan's old show was based, to Los Angeles.

Two days before Conan's Jan. 12 proclamation, NBC had announced it was going to move the iconic franchise in order to squeeze "The Jay Leno Show" back into the old 11:35 p.m. "Tonight Show" start time, though the program would be busted down to 30 minutes.

Conan's camp has said their guy was not given enough time to grow an audience for "Tonight" and that his ratings were hurt by Leno's lousy 10 o'clock numbers.

But, during this week's hissing and spitting, Conan pointed out on the air that his show was in ratings trouble long before "The Jay Leno Show" had even debuted.

Not quite two weeks ago, NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin told a roomful of TV reporters that a "drumbeat" of unhappy affiliates threatening to preempt Leno's prime-time show had gotten so loud after the November sweep ratings came in that the din had forced NBC to yank Leno's unsuccessful comedy/talk hour.

At the end of the November sweeps, NBC TV stations had lost 14 percent of the households that had previously tuned in to their 11 p.m. newscasts, Gaspin explained. Conan's "Tonight Show" at 11:35 p.m. had plunged 49 percent.

Even so, NBC did not want to lose O'Brien, Gaspin insisted: "We still wanted Conan and Jay to stay at NBC. That was where we came up with a compromise. It was not perfect -- compromises usually aren't. But we thought it was fair."

Though there's been a lot of speculation Conan might wind up doing a show for the Fox broadcast network -- and Fox suits have publicly reiterated their love for the former "Simpsons" writer -- it's not a slam dunk.

As we've seen from the numbers being slung around this week, Conan's not exactly cheap. Plus, the past seven months haven't exactly demonstrated that Conan's a fresh face in pursuit of a new, untapped audience. He's been on the air hosting a late-night show on NBC for about 15 years and, moved to the early time slot, he was only clocking about half as many viewers as Leno.

And let's not forget that Conan will not be able to take Pimpbot 5000 or the Masturbating Bear with him where he lands. They are NBC's intellectual property. Which, like we said before, only sounds like an oxymoron -- really, it never gets old.

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