NBC finalizes its late shift, plays more 'Office' politics


NBC has set a date for the transition at "The Tonight Show."

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

NBC co-chairman Marc Graboff announced the dates during NBC's executive session at the Television Critics Assn.'s summer press tour in response to a question by Leno himself, who showed up disguised as a critic, echoing Jimmy Kimmel's 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 NBC co-chairman Ben Silverman to respond, "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 didn't play as well as Kimmel's. It caused 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 O'Brien, Graboff and Silverman said they had no regrets.

"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."

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 into the broadcast version.

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

NBC also confirmed that "Saturday Night Live" star Amy Poehler will star 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 the spinoff as the actress' pregnancy has pushed back the show's production. The network has not decided what will air in the slot, but it could still be some iteration of "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 "Office" and a couple of new characters who will be introduced into the original "Office" for the sole purpose of shifting them to the spinoff.

Silverman added that he sees "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.

Sophomore drama "Life" will be double pumped for the first two weeks of the season, with extra airings after "Heroes" on Mondays.

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 rumors that GE might sell NBC Universal. "We've been constantly reassured that GE has no intention of selling us," he said. (partialdiff)