Leno: It’s ‘business’

NBC finalizing details of O'Brien's departure

As Conan O’Brien plotted his final week on “The Tonight Show,” Jay Leno gave his side of NBC’s latenight crisis on Monday, blaming bad ratings — and Peacock execs — for the mess.

“This is all business,” he told the “The Jay Leno Show” audience, according to a transcript released by NBC. “If you don’t get the ratings, they take you off the air.”

Meanwhile, O’Brien’s lawyers continued to finalize his exit from NBC. An announcement had been expected for Monday afternoon, but both sides wanted to make sure every outstanding item was addressed before going public.

Before hosting Monday night’s “Tonight Show,” O’Brien took time out to greet fans who gathered on Lankershim Boulevard outside the Universal Studios entrance, braving a massive downpour to show support for the host.

Hundreds crowded outside Universal Studios’ Gate 2 to rally for O’Brien, who sent “Tonight Show” staffers out with boxes of pizza in response.

Sidekick Andy Richter spoke to the crowd from the top of the “Tonight Show” building, while Max Weinberg 7 bandmate Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg rode around the event in a “popemobile”-style vehicle.

“I’m With CoCo” rallies also took place in other cities, including New York and Chicago.

As for his comments on “The Jay Leno Show,” Leno said he went along with NBC’s original backup plan — a half-hour show at 11:35 p.m. — but wasn’t happy with moving to a downsized 30-minute structure. He said he agreed to do it, however, because the primetime strip was a flop. Leno said he then asked NBC execs whether they thought O’Brien would sign off on the plan. Their response? “Yes, yes. Almost guarantee you.”

When O’Brien balked, Leno said he would agree to take back “The Tonight Show.”

“It looks like we might be back at 11:30. I’m not sure; I don’t know,” Leno told his audience, even as the Peacock is poised to soon announce Leno’s return to the “Tonight Show.”

For Leno, of course, the move is actually something he was eager to accept — and also repped a sort of vindication at NBC.

The host didn’t dwell on his dissatisfaction about moving out of the 11:35 p.m. slot but did characterize the “Tonight Show” transition plan, hatched in 2004, as something that was forced upon him.

Leno recounted in detail how NBC execs first told him that they planned to pass “The Tonight Show” on to O’Brien in 2004.

“I said, ‘I’ve been No. 1 for 12 years.’ They said, ‘We know that, but we don’t think you can sustain that,'” Leno said. “I said, ‘OK, how about I fall to No. 2, then you fire me?’ ‘No, we made this decision.’

“I said, ‘I’ll retire just to avoid what happened last time’ ” — a reference to the friendship-ending drama that unfolded in 1991-92 when he and Letterman were in competition to succeed Johnny Carson.

Instead, the host said he ultimately agreed to the 10 p.m. slot after being told that focus groups liked the idea of Leno in primetime and that he could keep his staff of 175.

Leno said he was also guaranteed two years on the air at 10.

“Now, for the first four or five months against original shows like ‘CSI,’ you’ll get killed,” he remembered execs briefing him. “But in the spring and summer when reruns come, that’s when you’ll pick up.”

The host said he held “no animosity” toward O’Brien, who has directed several quips at Leno over the past week on “The Tonight Show.”

“The great hope was that we would help him,” Leno said. “Well, we didn’t help him any.”

Over at Universal City, the Monday “Team Conan” rally appeared to lift the spirits of “Tonight Show” staffers, most of whom are still dizzy from the sudden turn of events.

“This whole thing is crazy,” wrote “Tonight Show” inhouse blogger Aaron Bleyaert on Friday. “And the weirdest part is that it’s all happening so fast. When did this start? Like two weeks ago? Good Lord. I keep having dreams where my house is burning down.”

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