Conan O'Brien's ratings are soaring as he nears a bitter exit from NBC's "Tonight" show, his ridicule of his network executives apparently resonating in a country filled with the unemployed.
His ratings Friday were 50 percent higher than they've been this season, and he beat CBS' David Letterman, according to a preliminary Nielsen Co. estimate based on large markets. In the 18-to-49-year-old demographic that NBC relies on to set advertising prices, O'Brien even beat Jay Leno's prime-time show.
Settlement talks continued Saturday on a deal that would let O'Brien leave NBC and restore Leno to the 11:35 p.m. time slot he occupied for 17 years through last spring.
O'Brien's ratings have been rising through the week, which was an extraordinary one in late-night television and saw O'Brien and Letterman hurling barbed remarks at Leno, and Leno firing back.
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.
He aired a skit where he was assaulted by gunfire after pulling his car into the studio parking lot. He also is showing "greatest hits" of his seven-month tenure.
The audience's energy level noticeably went down when he joked about topics other than himself. "I didn't love it either," he said as one joke fell flat. "At this point, I really don't care."
He laughed maniacally when telling the audience that NBC is expected to lose millions of dollars from its coverage of next month's Winter Olympics.
But he pulled back from jokes about Leno. On Friday, Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, had said the crossfire between hosts "has definitely crossed the line.
"Jay is the consummate professional and one of the hardest-working people in television," Gaspin said. "It's a shame that he's being pulled into this."
Leno took a retaliatory strike on CBS' Letterman on Friday.
"Even Dave Letterman is taking shots at me, which surprised me. Usually he's just taking shots at the interns," Leno said, a reference to the CBS host's admission last year that he had affairs with women who worked on his show.
Meanwhile, Polone denied a New York Post item Saturday, quoting an anonymous source, that said O'Brien's staff members are "furious" with O'Brien for negotiating an exit payment reportedly approaching $30 million while they are losing their jobs. Polone noted that O'Brien paid staff members himself during the Hollywood writers' strike, and was negotiating severance packages for his employees, many of whom moved from the New York area last year when O'Brien started on "Tonight."
Polone is also angry at NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol, who told The New York Times this week that O'Brien was "an astounding failure" who had stubbornly resisted advice to broaden his show's appeal. O'Brien's people blame the show's ratings problems on the poor ratings of NBC's late local news and Leno's show before that.
Leno averaged 5.2 million viewers per night on his last season at the "Tonight" show, Nielsen said. O'Brien is averaging 2.5 million this season.
AP Television Writer Lynn Elber contributed to this report.
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