Longtime members of Jay Leno's TV staff spoke up for their boss, saying he's being wrongly cast as the bad guy in NBC's late-night upheaval.
"Any idea that Jay has forced the issue to get back on `The Tonight Show' is not true," said producer Jack Coen, who has worked with Leno for 14 years. "The network asked him to make a compromise. He's being a good soldier, and he's being trashed."
Leno, typically cast as an easygoing everyman, has faced online chatter and some reports suggesting he's wresting "Tonight" from Conan O'Brien. Tracie Fiss, a co-producer who has worked with Leno for 18 years, said her reaction to such characterizations is "frustration."
"Jay doesn't have the power to make these decisions. The decisions are made by NBC," she said.
Settlement talks continued Sunday on a deal that would let O'Brien leave NBC and "Tonight," and put Leno back into the 11:35 p.m. EST time slot he occupied for 17 years through last spring. NBC is dropping "The Jay Leno Show," his disappointing prime-time show that debuted last fall at 10 p.m.
A proposed deal would give O'Brien more than $30 million for leaving and allow him to go to another network as early as this fall, according to people familiar with the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the negotiations.
After O'Brien rejected NBC's initial plan to move him and "Tonight" to midnight EST and give Leno a half-hour show at 11:30 p.m. EST, the flap became monologue fodder for them and for other late-night hosts. The exchanges, which grew increasingly pointed and with Leno often the target, have been widely reported.
Appearing by satellite last week for Leno's "Ten at Ten" question-and-answer segment, ABC's Jimmy Kimmel was asked to relate his best prank ever. Kimmel replied that he told a guy five years ago that he'd give him his show, and "then I took it back."
It was a thinly veiled reference to Leno's agreement in 2004 to surrender "The Tonight Show" to O'Brien last year.
Coen, who worked on "Tonight" with Leno and is a producer on Leno's prime-time show in charge of writing, said such barbed humor isn't unusual among comedians but contends it's being misinterpreted in news reports.
"It's interesting to be on this side of the story and see how it's being reported. They act as if he's the corporate lapdog but also the master marionette forcing these issues," Coen said.
If Leno emerges with "Tonight" but with his image scarred, it could have ramifications for him and his show.
Meanwhile, O'Brien's battle with his network certainly hasn't hurt his ratings. With his jabs at NBC network executives apparently resonating in a country filled with unemployed, viewership has soared.
"Tonight" ratings Friday were 50 percent higher than they've been this season, and O'Brien beat CBS' Letterman, according to a preliminary Nielsen Co. estimate based on large markets. In the 18-to-49-year-old demographic on which NBC relies to set advertising prices, O'Brien even beat Leno's prime-time show.
O'Brien's team sees the ratings as vindication. His manager, Gavin Polone, on Saturday compared it to when Leno, trailing Letterman in the ratings in the mid-1990s, drew attention for the memorable appearance of Hugh Grant after his arrest. Leno passed Letterman in popularity and never looked back.
"People who never watched Conan before are saying, `I'll try it,'" Polone said. "Now they're saying, `This is good, I'll stick with it.'"
It's doubtful they'll get the chance. O'Brien sounded halfway out the door on Friday's show, an exit prompted by his refusal to move his show to 12:05 a.m. at NBC's request. "By the time you see this, I'll be halfway to Rio in an NBC traffic helicopter," he said in his monologue.
AP Television Writer David Bauder contributed to this report.
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