Conan O’Brien signed a new NBC deal today that guarantees him The Tonight Show in 2009, after the network’s president Jeff Zucker negotiated with Jay Leno to step down in five years, NBC sources say. “It’s a testament to Jay and to his class,” a Leno insider tells L.A. Weekly. “Zucker and Jay talked about it because Conan’s 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 Leno’s big surprise. Still, his move shocked Hollywood, since no performer ever relinquishes these big jobs unless they’re carried out feet first. After all, Leno will only be age 59 in ’09. So what will he do after The Tonight Show? “He’ll still be doing comedy, and still be doing something within the NBC family,” the Leno insider explains. “But Zucker wanted a smooth successful transition. It’s 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 CBS’s CSI juggernaut and Friends spin-off Joey performing so-so. Zucker’s only breakout hit so far seems to be LAX. The pressure, therefore, must have been immense on him to solve The Tonight Show’s succession as swiftly as possible. Why would Leno agree? He may be the most malleable man in show biz; after all, he’s never negotiated even his salary with NBC.
The source insisted that Leno’s 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, Leno’s ratings do not appear to be affected.
Today’s transition plan is a huge contrast to the mess caused by Johnny Carson’s 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, Leno’s exit allowed Letterman’s successor, O’Brien, to re-sign with NBC today. Leno’s own contract to host The Tonight Show through ’09 was signed back when Jack Welch headed the network’s parent company, GE. No doubt, by not making waves, Leno is guaranteeing himself a future with the network past his contract’s end.
Today’s move puts new pressure on CBS in the late-night time slot. Craig Kilborn’s unexpected resignation from The Late Late Show threw that network’s post-Letterman show into chaos, and now a parade of guest hosts are trying out for that gig. Then there’s the issue of Letterman himself: He’s not exactly getting younger, his ratings are still lower than Leno’s, and Letterman gets paid a hell of a lot more. Isn’t it about time that CBS locked in Letterman’s natural successor, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, now rather than later?
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