He told NBC he would retire "'just to avoid what happened the last time,"' he recounted with a chuckle.
What's happening now at NBC turned out to be reminiscent of the contest between Leno and David Letterman to win "Tonight" after Johnny Carson's retirement and NBC's similar dithering at the time.
With a plan in place for Leno to leave "Tonight" in May 2009, before his NBC contract ended, he would be prevented from starting at another network for at least a year, Leno said. He asked to be freed but NBC refused, instead suggesting that Leno could do well with a prime-time show that the network acknowledged would get "killed" against first-run episodes of shows like CBS' "CSI" but could get traction against summer reruns.
Leno said he agreed, in part, because it would allow him to keep his staff of about 175 people working. But the network's plan for patience was unraveled by affiliates, who said his low ratings were sinking their local late newscasts, which the show precedes.
O'Brien had his own ratings woes, which Leno said — pointedly — started in summer before they could be blamed on Leno's poor prime-time performance.
"Tonight" with O'Brien is drawing about half of the roughly 5 million viewers Leno attracted as its host, although O'Brien has gotten a significant ratings bump since the network flap started.
When NBC suggested a half-hour show, Leno told the network he wasn't crazy about doing it but said OK. He asked if O'Brien would agree to be moved to midnight and was told yes — it was almost guaranteed.
Leno may have been restrained with his comments, but he couldn't resist a hard-edged joke at NBC's expense.
"CBS is now developing a new sitcom about the troubles here at NBC," he said. "It's called `Two Men and a Half-Assed Network."'
O'Brien let loose on his show Monday, too.
"Last night at the Golden Globes, Julia Roberts said that NBC was in the toilet. NBC was upset and toilets were furious," he said.
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