Conan OBrien signed a new NBC deal today that guarantees him The Tonight Show in 2009, after the networks president Jeff Zucker negotiated with Jay Leno to step down in five years, NBC sources say. "Its a testament to Jay and to his class," a Leno insider tells L.A. Weekly. "Zucker and Jay talked about it because Conans contract was coming up. Zucker wanted to keep Conan. So Jay decided to pass the torch."
Leno will make the announcement tonight on his show, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, but a Zucker e-mail to NBC staff trumped Lenos big surprise. Still, his move shocked Hollywood, since no performer ever relinquishes these big jobs unless theyre carried out feet first. After all, Leno will only be age 59 in 09. So what will he do after The Tonight Show? "Hell still be doing comedy, and still be doing something within the NBC family," the Leno insider explains. "But Zucker wanted a smooth successful transition. Its a great long-term plan for a late-night institution."
The Tonight Show represents a huge profit center for NBC, and is even more important to the network this season with no Friends to compete against CBSs CSI juggernaut and Friends spin-off Joey performing so-so. Zuckers only breakout hit so far seems to be LAX. The pressure, therefore, must have been immense on him to solve The Tonight Shows succession as swiftly as possible. Why would Leno agree? He may be the most malleable man in show biz; after all, hes never negotiated even his salary with NBC.
The source insisted that Lenos stepping down had nothing to do with his recent interview with L.A. Weekly revealing his left-of-center politics. After his opinions received a ton of publicity, he became the target of an e-mail campaign by the right wing, pledging a boycott of the show. So far, Lenos ratings do not appear to be affected.
Todays transition plan is a huge contrast to the mess caused by Johnny Carsons retirement. Not only did NBC lose David Letterman to CBS, but the ruckus resulted in a book and an HBO movie by New York Times TV writer Bill Carter. By contrast, Lenos exit allowed Lettermans successor, OBrien, to re-sign with NBC today. Lenos own contract to host The Tonight Show through 09 was signed back when Jack Welch headed the networks parent company, GE. No doubt, by not making waves, Leno is guaranteeing himself a future with the network past his contracts end.
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Todays move puts new pressure on CBS in the late-night time slot. Craig Kilborns unexpected resignation from The Late Late Show threw that networks post-Letterman show into chaos, and now a parade of guest hosts are trying out for that gig. Then theres the issue of Letterman himself: Hes not exactly getting younger, his ratings are still lower than Lenos, and Letterman gets paid a hell of a lot more. Isnt it about time that CBS locked in Lettermans natural successor, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, now rather than later?
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