NBC finalizes its late shift

'Office' team working on spinoff, completely new series

NBC has set a date for the changing of the guard at "The Tonight Show."

After 17 years, Jay Leno will sign off as host of the venerated late-night talker Friday, May 29. His successor, Conan O'Brien, will exit "Late Night" sometime early in 2009 and take over for Leno on Monday, June 1.

NBC co-chairman Marc Graboff announced the dates during NBC's executive session at the Television Critics Assn.'s winter press tour in response to a question by Leno himself, who showed up disguised as a critic, echoing Jimmy Kimmel's similar stunt last week during ABC's session.

"Now, Brett Favre retired and then wanted to come back, and the Packers said no. What do you make of that?" Leno also asked, alluding to some speculation that NBC might bring him back on "Tonight" and prompting the following response by NBC co-chairman Ben Silverman, "Well, everyone's entitled to change their mind, but I would imagine that puts management in an impossible situation."

Also on Leno's list of questions: "Is it true that you offered Leno a fifth hour on the 'Today' show?"

The stunt, labeled by Graboff as "Jay's homage to Kimmel," didn't play as well the second time, causing more confusion than laughs since, with a bald cap and beard, Leno was all but unrecognizable.

With the succession timeline erasing any doubts about NBC's intention to go forward with replacing the top-rated Leno with the younger-skewing O'Brien, Graboff and Silverman said they had no regrets about the decision.

"We've all witnessed a lot of transitions at NBC," Graboff said. "We really believe in the decisions we have made with our partners, including Jay."

That said, Graboff stressed that the network is preparing a grand sendoff for Leno from "Tonight" while actively trying to prevent him from going to a competitor like ABC.

"We're not agreeing that he's going to ABC," Graboff said. "We're still talking to Jay about staying within NBC Universal. We're not even going to concede at this point. ... We're presenting him with a number of opportunities."

During O'Brien's transition time between signing off "Late Night" and starting "Tonight," Silverman said the network will make efforts to ensure that he is kept visible, perhaps by having O'Brien embark on a nationwide tour.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon, who is taking over O'Brien's "Late Night," will get to hone his craft for months in online webisodes before taking the air. Silverman noted that it will give Fallon an opportunity to get comfortable in the host role and try out various running gags that later could be incorporated for the broadcast version.

During the executive session, Graboff also announced that the network will again announce its schedule at an "in-front" presentation in April.

NBC also confirmed that "Saturday Night Live" star Amy Poehler will topline in a new comedy series from Greg Daniels and Michael Schur. But instead of the show being a substitute for the previously announced "Office" spinoff, the new Poehler comedy will be produced in addition to an "Office" spinoff.

"They came up with two ideas," Silverman said of the "Office" team. "One that is totally a spinoff, (and) the other is a new concept that's stylistically similar to 'The Office.' "

The Poehler comedy no longer will debut in the coveted post-Super Bowl slot as originally planned for "Office" spinoff as the actress' pregnancy has pushed back the show's production. The network has not yet decided what will air in the slot, but it could still be some iteration of "The Office," perhaps teasing to either the Poehler comedy or the spinoff.

After the panel, Silverman said the actual spinoff will include a couple of cast members from "The Office" and a couple of new cast members who will be introduced into the original "Office" for the sole purpose of shifting them to the spinoff.

Silverman added that he sees "The Office" as being a similar franchise to "Saturday Night Live": a group of players that can be expanded and plugged into various types of entertainment media.

"We're trying to build a creative greenhouse around 'The Office,' " Silverman said.

NBC plans to kick off "SNL" early this fall, premiering the show Sept. 13 to take advantage of potential creative fodder from the Republican and Democratic conventions. "SNL's" election-themed primetime specials will launch Oct. 9.

Looking back on the summer, Silverman said that, in retrospect, the network made some scheduling blunders.

"I would not have launched summer in mid-May," he said "And I wouldn't have allowed the Celtics to play the Lakers," noting that having "America's Got Talent" premiere opposite the NBA Finals was a mistake.

Next summer, Silverman said he wants to have two scripted series ready to air.

Meanwhile, Graboff dispelled the persistent rumors that GE might sell NBC Universal.

"We've been constantly reassured that GE has no intention of selling us," he said.

Nellie Andreeva contributed to this report.
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