Host steps in for Leno on June 1, 2009

Jay Leno will seamlessly hand “The Tonight Show” baton to Conan O’Brien next summer.

After that, it’s still anyone’s guess whether Leno will decide to stay at the Peacock. NBC execs told reporters Monday — as well as Leno, disguised as a TV critic — that they’re not ready to lose him to ABC.

“We can’t force him to do something,” said NBC Entertainment/Universal Media Studios co-chair Marc Graboff. “Our goal is to work with him and come up with an alternative than telling jokes in latenight at 11:30. We believe there’s room on a regular basis for him to be on our air.”

Silencing any final speculation that the net might change its mind, the Peacock announced that Leno’s 17-year run on the show will end on Friday, May 29. O’Brien will take over on Monday, June 1.

Leno has recently provided plenty of hints on air and in interviews that he’s less than pleased with having to go. He recently joked on “Tonight” about a move to ABC, and he told USA Today, “I am definitely done this year — with NBC.”

Graboff said Leno’s comment was taken out of context but nonetheless admitted that Peacock execs knew Leno wasn’t happy departing “Tonight.” The gabber continues to dominate latenight ratings, but the network is sticking by the regime change it put into motion four years ago with Leno’s blessing.

“We made our decision, and we’re happy with it,” Graboff said. “We’re confident ‘The Tonight Show’ will continue to be dominant in its time period.”

Despite the rampant talk that he’s ready to bolt the Peacock, Leno himself — made up in a bald cap and fake goatee to look like a middle-aged reporter — showed up at the TV Critics Assn. press tour (taking a similar tack as Jimmy Kimmel, who visited ABC’s sesh last week) and asked the first question during Graboff and fellow co-chairman Ben Silverman’s Q&A with reporters.

It took some critics a while to catch on that the “reporter” asking about Leno’s contract was actually Leno himself. Leno asked the NBC honchos about what would happen if the host had a change of heart.

Subtly referencing his own predicament, Leno asked, “Brett Favre retired and then wanted to come back, and the Packers said no. What do you make of that?”

Silverman told Leno that “everyone’s entitled to change their mind.”

“But,” he added, “I would imagine that puts management in an impossible situation.”

Still in disguise, Leno also asked if it were true that he’d been offered the fifth hour of “Today” — a joke — and if he’d be paid through the end of 2009 — which is true.

The continued pay means that Leno, should he depart the Peacock, wouldn’t be available to join ABC or any other outlet until the start of 2010. But Graboff said he wasn’t conceding that Leno would jump to the Alphabet net.

Graboff said Leno showed up in an attempt to remind everyone that he played a role in the transition plan (first announced four years ago) and that the host is “not bitter.”

“He wants to make it as smooth a transition as possible,” Graboff said. “He doesn’t want Conan to go through what he went through in 1992.

“We’ll respect Jay to the end; he’s a class act. We’ll do whatever we can and whatever he wants.”

NBC also elaborated on its transitional plans for “Late Night.” As mentioned by exec producer Lorne Michaels on Sunday, new host Jimmy Fallon will begin testing the show online toward the end of this year. Current host O’Brien will exit at the start of 2009 in order to prep for “Tonight”; reruns will air until Fallon goes live sometime in March or April.

In other Peacock news, NBC confirmed that Amy Poehler’s new series will not be a spinoff of “The Office” (Daily Variety, July 15). Exec producers Greg Daniels and Michael Schur will continue to develop an “Office” spinoff but put it on the back burner to focus on the Poehler show.

“They came up with two ideas,” Silverman said. “One which is totally a spinoff, which they’re pursuing and will be planted inside ‘The Office’ and maybe would involve characters already on (the show)… and then they developed a different concept in parallel which was set stylistically and formed by ‘The Office,’ but not characters or storylines based on ‘The Office.’ ”

As a result, the Poehler laffer won’t be produced by Reveille, which is a part of “The Office” and would still be attached to a full-fledged spinoff.

Details of the Poehler laffer still haven’t been disclosed, but with star Poehler set to give birth in the coming months, the show won’t be ready to air post-Super Bowl, as originally scheduled. NBC’s still deciding new Super Bowl lead-out plans, but “The Office” is a contender. Peacock hopes to have the Poehler show ready by spring, but insiders admit it might wind up being pushed to fall.

Also at the session, NBC announced that it would again hold its advertiser upfront presentation — which it dubbed the “infront” — in April. Peacock is still mulling its plans for the traditional May upfront week.

Earlier in the day, NBC Universal Sports and Olympics chairman Dick Ebersol spoke from Beijing via satellite and admitted that access to spots like Tiananmen Square isn’t as open as he’d like — but insisted that the Chinese government has come a long way nonetheless.

“China’s new to the world in terms of any level of openness,” Ebersol said. “I clearly see change; it’s a whole kind of learning experience for them. As shown by the recent earthquake, they’re capable of openness.”

That NBC will be able to broadcast for six to seven hours from Tiananmen Square is a “starting point,” he said. “Would we like more? Of course we would … I’m not naive, but it’s a starting point, which I don’t believe would be happening if the Olympics weren’t here.”

Ebersol recounted broadcasting live last year in Tiananmen Square to cover the year-out Olympics ceremony and encountering a senior Chinese TV official. The official pointed at the Peacock’s satellite and said, “This is the beginning of change for us.”

With the big possibility of major non-Olympic news coming out of the Games, Ebersol pointed out that NBC News is sending its heavy hitters to Beijing, including Brian Williams, the “Today” team and Tom Brokaw.

“If something develops here, if this becomes a news story other than Olympic events, we’re certainly ready to cover them,” he said. “We won’t cavalierly blow out sporting events to show news. But at the Opening Ceremony, we have our own cameras there, and the news and sports people will be ready to comment.”

During the NBC News/MSNBC session, division president Steve Capus dismissed criticism that the cabler hasn’t drawn a line between its opinionated on-air hosts like Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews and its campaign coverage, which is anchored by the two.

“This is not a new strategy,” Capus said. “Keith and Chris anchored before. The audience gets it. That’s the single biggest factor. The audience understands the roles these guys have played. They play it right down the middle on Election Night.”

Olbermann then chimed in, accusing “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace — who blasted the channel during an earlier press tour session — of being “a little underinformed on this.”

Olbermann said Fox News Channel hosts including Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes were also seen quite a bit on that network during primary coverage.

“What his statement is based on is something his network was doing, with less of an acknowledgement that those roles need to be separated,” he said. “We did this in 2006, and I don’t remember reading one thing that something we were doing was wrong.”

A Fox News spokesman, however, said those personalities only appeared as commentators but didn’t anchor Fox News coverage.

Meanwhile, NBC made yet another change to its fall sked, opting to double-pump returning skein “Life” the weeks of Sept. 29 and Oct. 6.

“Life” will air at 10 on those Monday nights, in addition to the show’s regular Friday slots on Oct. 3 and Oct. 10.

That bumps “My Own Worst Enemy,” which had been slated to air starting Sept. 29
, to Oct. 13. Later date for “Enemy” also is timed to the launch of a new GM product; the auto manufacturer is an integration partner on the show.

Net also confirmed plans to move “Kath & Kim” to 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays. Show will still launch Oct. 9. That means the special Thursday night editions of “Saturday Night Live” will air on Oct. 9, 16 and 23 at 9:30, followed by the preem of “30 Rock” in the post-“The Office” slot on Sept. 30.

Also, the syndie version of “Deal or No Deal” bows Sept. 8. Show’s been cleared in 97% of the country, including NBC-owned outlets in the top markets.

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