O'Brien will take over for Jay Leno in 5 years

Posted: Thursday, September 30, 2004

NEW YORK -- NBC chose the 50th anniversary of the ''Tonight'' show on Monday to announce that Jay Leno will be succeeded by ''Late Night'' host Conan O'Brien in five years -- or thousands of jokes from now.

The unusual succession plan solves a delicate problem for NBC, blocking other networks from poaching O'Brien to move him to an earlier time slot.

''This show is like a dynasty,'' Leno said on Monday's ''Tonight.'' ''You hold it and then you hand it off to the next person.''

Shortly after he signed his latest contract extension, Leno said NBC executives approached him, saying they didn't want to lose O'Brien.

They all knew O'Brien was likely to jump to another network if Leno kept doing the job indefinitely.

He said he agreed O'Brien would be a good replacement, so he assented to the succession plan.

''This show has been No. 1, we'll keep it No. 1, then we'll say, 'Conan, come on and take it over,'" he said. ''You can do these things until they carry you out on a stretcher or you can get out while you're still doing good.''

Leno's agreement to a 2009 exit, when he'll be 59, gives him the chance to make a smoother transition than when he took over from Johnny Carson on May 25, 1992, said Aaron Barnhart, a Kansas City Star columnist who once ran a newsletter on late-night TV news. Leno was criticized then for not even mentioning his predecessor.

That seemed clearly on Leno's mind Monday, as he offered a warm tribute to Carson. Leno called him ''the best man ever to hold this job,'' and showed a lengthy clip package of Carson's funniest moments.

He said there was a lot of animosity at his takeover, after having beaten out David Letterman for the job and ''a lot of good friendships were permanently damaged.''

''Quite frankly, I don't want to see anybody go through that again,'' Leno said.

For his first few years at ''Tonight,'' Leno trailed Letterman in ratings and critical respect. But Leno eclipsed Letterman's CBS show among viewers in the 1995-96 season and hasn't looked back.

In the season that concluded last week, ''Tonight'' averaged 5.8 million viewers, a 2 percent increase over the previous year. Letterman's ''Late Show'' on CBS averaged 4.2 million, up 8 percent from the year before.

Some in the industry privately thought it odd that Leno, who rarely if ever misses work, would willingly place a deadline on himself unless he was being pushed by NBC.

NBC executives were not commenting on Monday.

But Barnhart said the experiences of Leno's good friend, Jerry Seinfeld, might have proved that there is life -- and lucrative work -- after giving up the TV gig of a lifetime.

''Seinfeld has proven how you can move beyond TV and continue to be as big and as popular and as in demand as ever without having to punch the clock every night,'' he said.

Leno said Monday he had called Seinfeld for advice.

''I'm not quitting show business,'' he said. ''But I realized I'm not spending enough time with my cars.''

O'Brien's previous contract was expiring this year. The last time he was up for a renewal, Fox tried to lure him with an earlier show, but O'Brien turned it down at the last minute. ABC, Fox and even CBS -- if Letterman has any plans to retire himself in the next few years -- might have been interested.

In interviews, O'Brien, 41, has expressed a mixture of ambition and loyalty to NBC. He debuted in his current time slot in September 1993.

''There is the curiosity to take the show earlier,'' O'Brien told The New York Times last spring. ''But if going to another network for more money still means being seen by fewer people, what are you doing? Then it's just an ego thing.''

O'Brien show reaches 2.5 million viewers a night, dominating its time slot. The former ''Saturday Night Live'' comedy writer was a disaster his first few months on the air, but recovered to become a critical and commercial success.

Now, a man who once lived on 13-week contract renewals has signed a contract with a promise that he will take over the most famous late-night show in television in five years. It's an enormous expression of faith by NBC, betting that the fickle nature of public taste won't change much in five years.

O'Brien was not available to speak to reporters.

No decision has been made on whether O'Brien, whose show is New York-based, will move to California for ''Tonight,'' but that's considered likely because its Hollywood connections help in booking guests, particularly since competitor Letterman is in New York.



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