Leno to step down in '09

Conan O'Brien to be 'Tonight' host successor

— NBC chose the 50th anniversary of the "Tonight" show Monday to announce that Jay Leno would be succeeded by "Late Night" host Conan O'Brien in five years - or thousands of jokes from now.

The unusual succession plan solves a delicate problem for NBC, blocking other networks from poaching O'Brien to move him to an earlier time slot.

"In 2009, I'll be 59 years old and will have had this dream job for 17 years," Leno said Monday. "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," the notoriously workaholic Leno said about his wife.

When they signed Leno to his latest contract extension, NBC executives said they asked Leno when he'd feel comfortable making a transition. He knew that they wanted to keep O'Brien but that wouldn't be likely if Leno kept doing the job indefinitely.

For his first few years at "Tonight," Leno trailed the person he beat for the job, David Letterman, in ratings and critical respect. But Leno eclipsed Letterman among viewers in the 1995-96 season and hasn't looked back.

In the season that concluded last week, "Tonight" averaged 5.8 million viewers, a 2 percent increase over the previous year. Letterman's "Late Show" on CBS averaged 4.2 million, up 8 percent from the year before.

Some in the industry privately thought it odd that Leno, who rarely if ever misses work, would willingly place a deadline on himself unless he was being pushed by NBC.

NBC executives were not commenting Monday.

O'Brien's previous contract was expiring this year. The last time he was up for a renewal, Fox tried to lure him with an earlier show, but O'Brien turned it down at the last minute. ABC, Fox and even CBS - if Letterman has any plans to retire himself in the next few years - might have been interested.

In interviews, O'Brien, 41, has expressed a mixture of ambition and loyalty to NBC. He debuted in his current time slot in September 1993.

"There is the curiosity to take the show earlier," O'Brien told The New York Times last spring. "But if going to another network for more money still means being seen by fewer people, what are you doing? Then it's just an ego thing."

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