LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Comedian Jay Leno will make his last appearance as host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” next May 29, setting the stage for Conan O’Brien to replace him on America’s top late-night TV show on June 1, the network said on Monday.
But even as they announced the exact date of Leno’s long-planned 2009 departure, NBC executives said they were looking for ways to keep him at the General Electric Co.-owned network in a role other than as a late-night host.
“We’re still talking to Jay about staying within NBC Universal,” said Marc Graboff, a co-chairman of NBC Entertainment. “We’ve made our decision, we’re happy with it and were very confident ‘The Tonight Show’ will continue to be dominant.”
Leno’s future has been the subject of speculation since NBC surprised the television business four years ago by announcing that he would step down at some point in 2009 to be replaced by O’Brien. Leno’s last show will be a Friday night.
While NBC wants to keep Leno in the fold, other networks are known to be interested in hiring the comedian who has long reigned supreme in U.S. television’s late-night ratings wars.
“We believe there is still room for him to be on the air,” Graboff said, but he acknowledged that if Leno chose to leave there was little NBC could do about it.
“If he doesn’t want to do it, we respect that,” he said.
ABC is widely seen as Leno’s most likely destination if he leaves NBC altogether, and executives of the Walt Disney Co.-owned network said last week they would be interested in speaking with him.
Other entities said to be discreetly courting Leno, 58, before the negotiating window on his NBC contract opens include the Fox network and Sony Pictures Television.
LENO IN DISGUISE
NBC unveiled its plans for “The Tonight Show” transition during a presentation to television critics, which included a brief appearance by Leno in disguise.
As rival late-night host Jimmy Kimmel had during a presentation by ABC last week, Leno posed as a reporter and fired off a dozen or so facetious questions to Graboff and NBC Entertainment Co-Chairman Ben Silverman.
“Will Leno be paid for the rest of the year?” he asked at one point, and later followed up with, “Is it true you offered Leno a fifth hour on the ‘Today’ show?”
NBC executives have taken pains to craft a smooth succession from Leno to O’Brien, 45, who now hosts the “Late Night” program that immediately follows “The Tonight Show.”
NBC endured heavy criticism for how it dealt with the handoff from Johnny Carson to Leno in 1992, eventually finding itself in a bitter public feud with then-“Late Night” host David Letterman, who had coveted the “Tonight Show” job. Letterman ultimately left NBC to anchor his own “Late Show” on CBS directly opposite Leno.
NBC has named “Saturday Night Live” veteran Jimmy Fallon as O’Brien’s successor to host NBC’s “Late Night” show. Fallon will test some of his material on the Internet before his program moves to NBC’s late-night schedule in 2009, NBC said.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Eric Beech
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