- The Washington Times - Monday, January 18, 2010

LOS ANGELES — Staffers for Jay Leno say their boss isn’t the bad guy in NBC’s late-night upheaval.

Mr. Leno has faced online chatter and some reports suggesting he’s wresting “Tonight” from Conan O’Brien.

“The network asked him to make a compromise. He’s being a good soldier, and he’s being trashed,” said producer Jack Coen, who has worked with Mr. Leno for 14 years.

He added that there isn’t any truth to the suggestion that the talk host forced the issue to get back on “The Tonight Show.”

Tracie Fiss, a co-producer who has worked with Mr. 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 Mr. 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, which debuted last fall at 10 p.m.

A proposed deal would give Mr. 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 Mr. O’Brien rejected NBC’s initial plan to move him and “Tonight” to 12:05 a.m. EST and give Leno a half-hour show at 11:35 p.m. EST, the flap became monologue fodder for them and for other late-night hosts. The exchanges, which grew increasingly pointed and had Mr. Leno often as the target, have been reported widely.

Appearing by satellite last week for Mr. Leno’s “Ten at Ten” question-and-answer segment, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel was asked to relate his best prank ever. Mr. 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 Mr. Leno’s agreement in 2004 to surrender “The Tonight Show” to Mr. O’Brien last year.

Mr. Coen, who worked on “Tonight” with Mr. Leno and is a producer on Mr. 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,” Mr. Coen said.

If Mr. Leno emerges with “Tonight” but with his image scarred, it could have ramifications for him and his show.

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