Leno keeping NBC up at night

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Times Staff Writer

Hours after NBC Universal said it would sell its storied NBC Studios in Burbank, late-night talk show host Jay Leno offered his take on the news from the stage of Studio 3, his home of 15 years.

“We are coming to you from the NBC lot in Burbank as now seen on EBay,” Leno riffed during his monologue Thursday. Then, as part of a skit, an actress posing as a real estate agent in a gold blazer barged onto the set with a young couple in tow. “It has air conditioning and 87 bathrooms,” she chirped.

Leno mildly objected, saying he was in the middle of his show.

“Don’t worry about all of that,” the woman said, motioning dismissively toward Leno. “It will be moved out by the time you’re moved in.”


The gag makes light of the bind Leno now finds himself in. NBC has laid the foundation to move him out of “The Tonight Show.” But television’s top dog of late night doesn’t want to go, according to three people familiar with the situation.

As part of a high-stakes gambit engineered by NBC Universal executives three years ago, Leno agreed to step down in 2009 as “The Tonight Show” host to make room for Conan O’Brien. Afraid that O’Brien, whose talk show airs after Leno’s, would bolt to a competing network, taking his desirable young audience with him, NBC locked up his services by promising him “The Tonight Show.”

But as the date has drawn closer, Leno has become frustrated, reluctant to retire from late night.

“It’s almost unprecedented in television for someone as successful as Jay has been to have his departure planned several years in advance,” TV historian Tim Brooks said.

Brooks said the last time such a big TV star left at the top of his game was in 1968, when Andy Griffith said goodbye even though his CBS sitcom was No. 1 in the ratings.

“This is a very different approach, and a very risky one for NBC,” Brooks said.

After 2009, Leno could pack up his show, and his audience, and move to ABC or Fox. Fox has tried unsuccessfully for years to grab a piece of the late-night advertising pie. CNN also could make a bid for Leno to eventually take over Larry King’s spot. (Turner Broadcasting, however, said that King could have the job for as long as he wanted.) CBS might even be a contender if David Letterman decides to leave after his contract expires in 2010.


That’s one reason NBC is trying to keep Leno in the fold.

“We are working with Jay to convince him that there is life beyond late night,” said Marc Graboff, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment. “He’s a great talent. We really want to stay in business with him.”

Leno declined to be interviewed for this story. O’Brien also declined to comment.

Leno went along with NBC’s succession plan to ensure a smooth transition, according to several people who were involved in the negotiations. That was a courtesy Leno didn’t enjoy in 1992, when he followed in the footsteps of the legendary Johnny Carson.

Back then, NBC’s management was fiercely divided over who should get the coveted 11:35 p.m. gig. Would it be Leno, the frequent fill-in host for Carson, or Carson’s protege, Letterman, the puckish star of NBC’s 12:30 a.m. broadcast, the slot that now belongs to O’Brien? The debate sparked months of bitter infighting at NBC’s highest levels. Letterman defected to CBS. Leno took the job knowing that key NBC executives lacked confidence in him.

NBC Universal didn’t want another gut-wrenching situation and figured that by 2009, with Leno at 59, it would be time to shuffle the deck.

“It’s 1992 all over again,” said Warren Littlefield, a TV producer who was NBC’s entertainment president during the Leno-Letterman battle. “They are right back in the same situation, despite the fact that they wanted to avoid that. History may be repeating itself for NBC.”

In the case of Carson, NBC made accommodations to keep its lion of late night on the air for as long as possible. It was Carson’s quick wit, deadpan delivery and broad appeal that made “The Tonight Show” a cultural institution and a moneymaking machine. By the time Carson announced his retirement at the age of 65 after nearly three decades on the air, he had cut back his appearances.


In contrast, Leno, 57, continues to be one of the hardest-working stars in show business. In addition to “The Tonight Show,” he makes hundreds of club appearances each year. Last week, on the day before NBC said it was selling its Burbank lot, Leno attended a Burbank public safety communications simulation training session to show his support for the city.

Leno’s ratings remain strong -- a noteworthy achievement in an industry grappling with declining viewership. “The Tonight Show” averages about 5.8 million viewers a night, according to Nielsen Media Research. Leno has beaten his longtime foe Letterman for nearly 12 years.

Although down from its peak of a few years ago, “The Tonight Show” still makes about $50 million a year in profit, according to people familiar with the finances who spoke on condition of anonymity because the network doesn’t break out its numbers.

From his monologues to his motorcycles, his “Jaywalking” to his “Headlines” segments, the comic with the protruding chin and skunk-striped hair has nurtured his own brand of Everyman charm that has made him a favorite on Main Street.

“He’s familiar, he’s comfortable, he’s safe and he’s trusted when you are home late at night and in your jammies, feeling vulnerable,” Brooks said. “There’s friendly ‘ole Jay. A lot of people may not want to trade him for new and edgy.”

It’s an interesting dilemma for NBC, said Jason Maltby, a top buyer with advertising agency Mindshare.


“Jay’s appeal has always been very broad-based, which is good, but the not-so-good part is that his audience tends to skew a lot older,” Maltby said.

The median age of Leno’s audience is nearly 52, a tad older than that of CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman.” That’s an issue because advertisers pay a premium to reach 18- to 49-year-old viewers.

Although the audience for “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” is less than half the size of Leno’s, its median age is 44 -- hitting the bull’s-eye for Madison Avenue.

Some in Hollywood speculate that NBC might opt to keep Leno as the host of “The Tonight Show.” NBC would have to pay O’Brien a penalty of about $40 million to break its deal. That would be a high-profile about-face for the company’s recently installed boss, NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker.

NBC, which is owned by General Electric Co., said it was not reversing course.

“We had to make a choice because we didn’t want to lose Conan,” Graboff said. “We feel that we made the right choice.”

NBC executives have discussed with Leno the possibility of a prime-time show. “We want to find something that would be satisfying for him as well as satisfying for NBC,” Graboff said.


NBC last week said O’Brien would move from New York to Los Angeles in 2009. The company plans to upgrade Stage One on its Universal Studios lot as the new home of “The Tonight Show” with O’Brien. The historic venue was built in 1961 for the “Jack Benny Show” and more recently serviced “Desperate Housewives” and such movies as “Bruce Almighty” and “Jurassic Park III.”

Carson moved with the show from New York to Burbank in 1972 to be closer to Hollywood and its seemingly endless supply of celebrities to book as guests.

The big question now is whether O’Brien and his irreverent brand of humor will click with the viewers who faithfully tune in to “The Tonight Show.”

“Conan does very decent numbers at 12:30 a.m., but will he be able to maintain those 50-plus people?” asked Maltby, the advertising buyer. “Conan’s humor is more tongue-in-cheek and irreverent, and irreverence doesn’t play well with everybody.”

Some of O’Brien’s humor might be better suited for 12:30 a.m. His current sketches include “Triumph the Insult Comic Dog” and the “Horny Manatee.” Punch lines of his jokes often invoke sexual anatomy, to the delight of the young men who are among O’Brien’s biggest fans.

O’Brien may temper his humor for “The Tonight Show.”

“Look, ‘The Tonight Show’ at 11:35 has always been the big tent show,” said Rick Ludwin, NBC Entertainment executive vice president in charge of late-night programs.


O’Brien and his producers “know the difference between what works at 12:30 and 1 a.m. and what will work at 11:35 p.m.,” Ludwin said. “That’s one of the things that convinced us to go with Conan. He’s smart enough and funny enough to know what works for the audience that he’s performing to.”

After NBC’s last late-night shuffle, Leno didn’t start out ahead in the ratings.

Leno gradually made ratings gains but has a Sunset Boulevard prostitute to thank for helping put him over the top.

In July 1995, British actor Hugh Grant appeared on Leno’s show two weeks after being arrested with a prostitute. Leno opened the interview with: “What the hell were you thinking?” The show got huge ratings, and Leno hasn’t looked back.

TV historian Brooks said he understood why NBC was putting its chips on O’Brien. “They are trying to plan for the future,” he said. “But sometimes, you can over-think tomorrow.”