This article was updated a t 6:03 p.m.
NEW YORK — Beginning what could be the longest retirement party in television history, NBC announced Monday that Jay Leno will step down as host of “The Tonight Show” in 2009 to make way for Conan O’Brien.
Bombshell deal, designed to keep O’Brien from bolting to another net, was personally brokered by NBC Universal Television Group prexy Jeff Zucker. Secret talks with Leno, who was reportedly happy to help ensure a smooth transition, had been under way since his contract was reupped in April.
Happy to retire
“In 2009, I’ll be 59 years old and will have had this dream job for 17 years,” Leno said in a statement. “When I signed my new contract, I felt that the timing was right to plan for my successor and there is no one more qualified than Conan. Plus, I promised Mavis I would take her out for dinner before I turned 60.”
O’Brien’s own contract, which specifies that he will succeed Leno after hosting “Late Night” for another five years, was sealed in the early-morning hours before Monday’s announcement. O’Brien, whose show airs at 12:35 a.m., has been eager to secure an earlier timeslot and made it clear to NBC execs that there were opportunities elsewhere. He could have jumped to ABC, Fox and even CBS, had David Letterman retired before Leno.
Leno told the news to his viewing public later in the evening as “Tonight” celebrated its 50th anniversary, as well as its longtime run as the No. 1 latenight program against CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman.”
The TV biz was stunned by the succession plan, saying it didn’t foresee Leno — known for being a workhorse — retiring anytime soon. It’s the second shakeup to hit the latenight scene in recent weeks, following Craig Kilborn’s surprise decision to not reup as host of CBS’ “Late Late Show.”
Before that, latenight had been downright sleepy since Leno and Letterman took on their respective gigs 12 years ago.
Execs at other networks speculated as to whether Leno would lose clout, considering his lengthy lame-duck term.
Peacock gave no precise timetable for the Leno-O’Brien handover, but sources close to the deal said O’Brien’s last “Late Night” show will be New Year’s Eve 2008. He’ll then take six months off to prepare for the new gig and move to Los Angeles, home of “Tonight.” O’Brien’s “Late Night” band, led by Max Weinberg, will go with him. “Late Night” exec producer Jeff Ross also is expected to make the jump.
When negotiating Leno’s contract in spring, NBC execs broached the subject of O’Brien and expressed their concern that he would indeed leave barring some sort of succession plan. They told Leno that they were about to begin contract talks with O’Brien.
Leno had already talked about retiring when he turns 59, and endorsed the idea of announcing now that O’Brien would replace him.
No reprise of past turmoil
Insiders said Leno didn’t want O’Brien to suffer the turmoil he did upon Johnny Carson’s announcement that he was retiring as host of “Tonight,” which set off a fierce war between the Leno and Letterman camps. Letterman, then the host of NBC’s “Late Night,” had assumed he would take over for Carson.
NBC execs weren’t talking to reporters Monday, and instead released a statement complete with quotes from all involved.
Zucker, who told staffers of the news in an email, said it was a “great accomplishment and testament to both Jay and Conan that we were able to all work together” in coming up with the long-term plan.
Leno is rumored to make somewhere in the $14 million-a-year range, the same as Letterman. At the time of his retirement in 1992, Carson reportedly made $30 million.
O’Brien’s current contract, which runs through 2005, is rumored to pay somewhere in the range of $8 million per year. It’s not clear what his new contract is worth.
” ‘The Tonight Show’ is one of the great franchises in television and I am thrilled to get this opportunity,” O’Brien said. “I am thankful to everyone at NBC … and I am particularly grateful to Jay for all the generous support and kindness he has always shown me.”
CBS and Letterman’s shop were said to have been shocked at word of Leno’s retirement, but neither was commenting.
While Leno continues to dominate in the ratings, Letterman has been making gains in narrowing the gap, even while “Tonight” just won its ninth TV season in a row in all key ratings categories.
Last week, Letterman delivered his best fall premiere week since 2001 in total viewers and in the key adults 18-49 demo, according to Nielsen Media Research fast nationals.
For a premiere week, “Late Show” was in the best competitive position vs. “Tonight” since 1994 in total viewers and since 1996 in adults 18-49.
“Tonight” won the week overall, commanding 5.5 million viewers and a 2.0 rating in adults 18-49. “Late Show” averaged 5 million viewers and a 1.8 rating.
Kerry boosts Letterman
NBC execs point out that Letterman was buoyed by presidential candidate John Kerry’s visit Sept. 13.
Peacock execs don’t seem worried that the succession plan could erode Leno’s aud. They also expect O’Brien’s “Late Night” to remain its leader in the time period.
If anything, this locks in the future of this daypart for “years to come,” said NBC senior VP for latenight and primetime series Rick Ludwin.
“Latenight talent is a rare commodity,” NBC Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly said. “Cultivating it and keeping it has always been a priority here, and with this announcement we couldn’t be in a better place.”
(Michael Fleming contributed to this report.)