O'Brien's exit deal pushed another day

Fans rally behind host; Leno gives viewers his side of story

As a final signoff on the settlement sealing Conan O'Brien's exit from "The Tonight Show" was pushed by another day, Jay Leno on Monday gave his side of the story of NBC's late-night turmoil, and fans of O'Brien braved the rain to rally support.

All in all, O'Brien's settlement with NBC might be worth more than previously thought, up to $45 million-$50 million, when severance packages for "Tonight" staff are included. It will allow O'Brien to join another network, possibly Fox, in September.

O'Brien's successor at "Tonight," Leno, told viewers of his "The Jay Leno Show" on Monday night's show that "we might have an answer for you tomorrow" on his expected return to "Tonight."

While he had joked about NBC's late-night woes, Leno, a frequent target of a barbs from fellow comedians who blame him for pushing O'Brien out by agreeing to return to late-night, had not seriously addressed the events of the past few weeks until Monday.

His speech followed statements by several of his long-time staffers who, earlier on Monday, came out in defense of the embattled talk show host.

Leno started off with the infamous 2004 decision by NBC brass to set a 2009 date for him to pass the "Tonight" baton to O'Brien despite being the late-night ratings king. He agreed to retire "just to avoid what happened the last time," referring to NBC's previous late-night shake-up when the network picked him over David Letterman.

Leno said he twice asked NBC to be released from his contract: once in 2009, when he was forced out of "Tonight" to accommodate O'Brien, and once this year, when his primetime show was canceled.

NBC turned down his request both times, first offering him a primetime show and then a half-hour show at 11:35 p.m.

He accepted both times, the first time despite the fact a 10 p.m. talk show "didn't seem like a good idea at the time" and the second time after NBC brass assured him that O'Brien would agree to the "Tonight' move to 12:05 p.m., Leno said.

Throughout his address, Leno stressed twice the fact that O'Brien relies on a team of high-powered representatives, while he doesn't have an agent and manager. He also twice lauded O'Brien, calling him a "gentleman" and "a good guy."

"I have no animosity towards him," Leno said. "This is all business. If you don't get the ratings, they take you off the air."

The 300-plus die-hard O'Brien fans who lined Lankershim Boulevard in front of Universal Studios earlier in the day were not as civil, mixing anti-Leno chants with slogans in support of O'Brien.

"Tonight" trombonist Richie "La Bamba" Rosenberg drove by in glass box on the back of a truck. The culmination came when O'Brien ran down Lankershim, creating a ruckus. He later waved at the crowd from the rooftop, and his staff treated the drenched fans with free pizza.
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