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Jay Leno turns serious on show, lauds Conan O'Brien

By LYNN ELBER, AP Television Writer Modified: January 19, 2010 at 12:09 pm •  Published: January 19, 2010

LOS ANGELES — Jay Leno turned serious on his show to discuss the late-night chaos at NBC, telling viewers that he'd been doubtful about launching a prime-time show but was prevented by NBC from going to another network instead.

Leno, in explaining events from his standpoint, also said Monday that he had told NBC he'd return to the "Tonight" slot only after Conan O'Brien rejected the network's plan to put both men on in late night.

NBC continued negotiations Monday on an exit deal with O'Brien that would clear the way for Leno to reclaim the 11:35 p.m. EST slot occupied by "Tonight," which he hosted for 17 years before turning it over to O'Brien last spring.

The network is ending its prime-time experiment, "The Jay Leno Show," because of low ratings and affiliate station complaints.

When NBC told him they wanted to end his new show, Leno told viewers Monday, he asked to be released from his contract.

"'No, you're still a valuable asset to this company,"' he said the network told him. His reply: "How valuable can I be? You fired me twice."

That was a reference to NBC's decision six years ago to ask him to eventually make way for O'Brien to take over "Tonight," which Leno kept atop the ratings until he left.

He and O'Brien have traded increasingly edgy monologue jokes as NBC tries to extricate itself from its scheduling mess, but Leno told viewers his attitude toward his colleague is unchanged.

"Through all of this, Conan O'Brien has been a gentleman. He's a good guy, I have no animosity toward him. This is all business," Leno said. "You know, folks, if you don't get the ratings, they take you off the air."

Neither of them was a ratings winner, he said, either with "The Jay Leno Show" at 10 p.m. EST or O'Brien's "Tonight."

O'Brien did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday night.

Leno gave his audience a history lesson, or what alternately might have seemed a skillfully timed effort to repair any damage to Leno's trademark heart-of-gold image before the deal is made official, as soon as Tuesday.

In his recitation, Leno opened with an NBC executive telling him in 2004 that he would have to surrender "Tonight" to O'Brien to keep the gangly, redheaded host of "Late Night" from going to a competitor.

"I said, `Well, I've been No. 1 for 12 years.' They said, `We know that. We don't think you can sustain it,"' Leno recounted the executive telling him. He joked that he asked if he could at least wait until his show fell to No. 2, but agreed to the hand-over plan.

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