Unofficially courting Jay Leno for a new gig

Published: Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 29, 2008 at 8:54 p.m.

The Jay Leno chase is on.

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Jay Leno, host of "The Tonight Show," in an undated photo.


Four years ago, NBC made the comedian the lame-duck host of "The Tonight Show,'' announcing with fanfare that he would be succeeded by Conan O'Brien in 2009.

Today, Leno is still the champion of late-night ratings, with no apparent desire to do anything else but continue on top. "What I do,'' he has said on several occasions to colleagues, "is tell jokes at 11:30 at night.''

And so, nearly two years before he can officially be courted, suitors including two networks, ABC and Fox, and at least one television studio, Sony Pictures Television, are beginning to circle, doing everything they legally can to make sure Leno knows that they will make it possible for him to continue doing just that.

Senior executives at ABC and Fox said that their networks had discreetly gotten the message to Leno that they were waiting eagerly for the time when they would be able to make official overtures. NBC Universal, meanwhile, has repeatedly expressed its intention to retain Leno with a still-undisclosed plan for a new program.

Sony Pictures Television has made an approach through intermediaries to let Leno and his representatives know that as soon as he is allowed to discuss his next move, the studio will make him a rich offer for a syndicated late-night show that would make him the highest-paid host in late-night television, put his name on a new theater on the Sony lot and give him a financial interest in Sony music artists who appear on his show.

Executives who have heard the details of the plan said the move was Sony's effort to plant a flag in the ground, knowing how intense the pursuit of Leno was likely to be in coming months.

In a series of interviews here, executives on several sides of the courtship of Leno outlined possible plans for his future. They all asked to speak anonymously because they are not allowed to negotiate with Leno until November 2009, when a negotiating window will open up in Leno's deal with NBC.

Executives who know the details of his contract said Leno would remain attached to NBC through the end of 2009, even though he probably would not be on the air for the last six months of the contract. Leno's contract is estimated to pay him about $25 million a year - which is less than David Letterman's, which pays him more than $30 million. "Jay will of course honor his contract obligations to NBC,'' said Kenneth Ziffren, Leno's lawyer. (Leno works without a formal deal with an agent or manager.) "Jay isn't talking to anyone about anything and won't be until it's contractually proper,'' Ziffren said.

"The Tonight Show'' earns an estimated $100 million a year. Leno, who turns 58 in April, has kept his intentions for his post-"Tonight'' career to himself, declining any comment about what he might choose to do after his contract expires. His friends and associates have speculated that he could be looking for some way to make NBC regret asking him to make way for O'Brien - though Leno publicly has been nothing but supportive of O'Brien.

As a guest last month on another late-night show, "Jimmy Kimmel Live'' on ABC, Leno declared his intention to go through with the move.

That comment countered what had become rampant speculation that NBC might reconsider at the last minute and ask Leno to stay on at "Tonight.'' But NBC executives, including the chief executive of NBC Universal, Jeff Zucker, have reaffirmed their commitment to O'Brien. And if they did change their minds, they would owe O'Brien a penalty payment: an estimated $45 million.

One of Leno's potential suitors said, "I expect money will play a secondary role to revenge, and Jay will look to prove to everybody that NBC was wrong.''

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