The nation’s television critics have unwittingly become another player in the Jay Leno-David Letterman soap opera that’s currently being played out across the continent.

The scribes, assembled in Santa Monica for their twice-annual TV Critics Assn. tour with the various networks, are scheduled to meet with CBS officials Monday and Tuesday and with NBC on Jan. 14-15–that last day being the official deadline by which NBC must decide if it wants to match CBS’ offer to woo Letterman away.

Meanwhile, NBC officials, meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., are caught between a rock and a hard place: They don’t want to announce a decision prior to the CBS event–since the network would trumpet its acquisition and probably fly Letterman in for a nose-thumbing press conference–but are then faced with having the matter settled during their own two-day session, shining the spotlight more acutely on its executives, who are perceived to have botched the whole Letterman affair.

Based on the widely held assumption that NBC will stick with Leno and won’t be able to structure a deal to retain Letterman, observers expect NBC to delay any announcement until next Friday so CBS can’t immediately cash in on the publicity.

In fact, if since the deadline calls for NBC to respond by Jan. 15, it’s possible the web could honestly tell the press that it has presented Letterman’s representatives with a counter-offer and is waiting on a response.

Indications are that some New York-based NBC officials (among them NBC TV Stations president John Rohrbeck) favor giving Letterman “The Tonight Show” slot in order to keep him, while West Coast officials support Leno.

Leno did nothing to hurt his cause during the Dec. 28 week in Nielsen, continuing his upward trend with a 5.1 household rating (his best since June 22) and 3.2 among adults 18-49. It was the top performance in that demographic since his second week on the air, June 1-5.

NBC has been trying to structure a compromise in which Letterman would keep his current 12:30 a.m. slot but receive other concessions, such as a weekly prime time hour, though that’s apparently done little to sway the host from his demands of an earlier start for “Late Night.”

CBS has offered Letterman the 11:30 p.m. hour, as well as more than $ 14 million annually over a two-year deal. No new show could start until July, since Letterman extended his existing contract by two months in exchange for the right to negotiate with other parties.

Leno has said he would leave NBC if it ousted him from the “Tonight Show” slot.

It bears noting that Letterman probably wouldn’t be free to take a number of his show’s regular features–such as the Top 10 lists and Stupid Pet Tricks–in their current form to a new CBS program, since NBC Prods., which produces the series in association with Letterman’s Worldwide Pants Inc., owns those rights.

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