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Vitriol over late-night slot a ratings boon

Sun., Jan. 17, 2010, 12:20 a.m.

O’Brien’s audience spikes, but Leno’s return likely

PASADENA, Calif. – Conan O’Brien’s ratings are soaring as he nears a bitter exit from NBC’s “Tonight” show, his ridicule of his network executives apparently resonating in a country filled with the unemployed.

His ratings Friday were 50 percent higher than they’ve been this season, and he beat CBS’ David Letterman, according to a preliminary Nielsen Co. estimate based on large markets. In the 18-to-49-year-old demographic that NBC relies on to set advertising prices, O’Brien even beat Jay Leno’s prime-time show.

Settlement talks continued Saturday on a deal that would let O’Brien leave NBC and restore Leno to the 11:35 p.m. time slot he occupied for 17 years through last spring.

O’Brien’s ratings have been rising through the week, which was an extraordinary one in late-night television and saw O’Brien and Letterman hurling barbed remarks at Leno, and Leno firing back.

O’Brien’s team sees the ratings as vindication. His manager, Gavin Polone, on Saturday compared it to when Leno, trailing Letterman in the ratings in the mid-1990s, drew attention for the memorable appearance of Hugh Grant after his arrest. Leno passed Letterman in popularity and never looked back.

“People who never watched Conan before are saying, ‘I’ll try it,’ ” Polone said. “Now they’re saying, ‘This is good, I’ll stick with it.’ ”

It’s doubtful they’ll get the chance. O’Brien sounded halfway out the door on Friday’s show, an exit prompted by his refusal to move his show to 12:05 a.m. at NBC’s request. “By the time you see this, I’ll be halfway to Rio in an NBC traffic helicopter,” he said in his monologue.

He aired a skit where he was assaulted by gunfire after pulling his car into the studio parking lot. He also is showing “greatest hits” of his seven-month tenure.

But he pulled back from jokes about Leno. On Friday, Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, had said the crossfire between hosts “has definitely crossed the line.

“Jay is the consummate professional and one of the hardest-working people in television,” Gaspin said.


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