Leno: 'We Should Have an Answer Tomorrow' About Late-Night Mess

NBC could pay O'Brien $40 million; fans hold "I'm With CoCo" rallies.

ByABC News
January 18, 2010, 10:39 AM

Jan. 18, 2010— -- Jay Leno put all kidding aside tonight and got serious for change.

Mired in a rancorous programming squabble with his network and fellow comedian Conan O'Brien, Leno announced on his prime-time talk show, "The Jay Leno Show," that "we should have an answer tomorrow" about whether he is going to return to his former 11:35 p.m. "Tonight Show" time slot.

Leno also explained events that led to the situation from his standpoint and says he considered O'Brien -- who publicly rejected a proposal to host the show at a new, later time -- a "great guy."

The former (and apparently future) "Tonight Show" host said he'd tried to avoid doing a show in prime time but was convinced by NBC that it could work. Now, he said, four months later, because of problems with NBC's affiliated stations and low ratings, network executives informed him they were canceling his show but "told me you're still valuable."

The network asked him to move back to 11:35 for a half-hour show, with O'Brien to follow at 12:05 with "The Tonight Show."

Leno said he asked whether O'Brien would go along with this plan and was told that NBC was sure that he would. Leno said he agreed to the change because he wanted to protect the jobs of his staff members.

According to Leno, the network learned that O'Brien would not accept the shift, but he said he does not blame O'Brien at all.

A source familiar with the contract negotiations told ABCNews.com that NBC will pay the flame-haired comedian an exit package between $30 and $40 million, while the rest of the "Tonight Show" staff -- many of whom moved from New York to Los Angeles after O'Brien left his "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" show to succeed Leno earlier this year -- would receive severance and contract buy-out packages.

Nailing down the staff's severance packages has become a sticking point in the negotiations, which began last Wednesday, the source said. Some staff members were nearing the ends of their contracts while others didn't have any contractual protections at the time NBC announced its late-night shake-up plan, the person said.