Jay Leno courtesy NBC Photo
Jay Leno showed up incognito at the Television Critics Association on Monday to ask the inevitable questions about his future to NBC Entertainment co-chairmen Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff. Haven't we just seen this act? Yes, just last week when ABC chief Steve McPherson was quizzed by a disguised Jimmy Kimmel about that network's possible pursuit of Leno. Doesn't anybody have an original idea in this business?

Leno came up with the idea of the appearance in an effort to make amends for his remarks in USA Today last week that indicated that he's leaving the Peacock network after his Tonight gig is up (his final Tonight Show appearance has been set for May 29). "He felt a little bad about the USA Today piece," Graboff told reporters, adding that Leno continues to be in talks about a new role at NBC.

But there's no sign that the two sides are close on agreeing on a deal to keep Leno at the network. NBC insiders have already come to terms with the notion of him working elsewhere.

"We're really trying to work with him to come up with alternatives other than telling jokes at 11:30 at night on NBC," Graboff said. "In this day and age we believe there is room on a regular basis for him to be on our air. We have to convince him to do it. If he doesn't, we respect that."

They've actually been talking about a new role for Leno since 2004 when he agreed to a five-year contract at Tonight which included handing off the hosting job to Conan O'Brien on June 1, 2009. Time flies when you're still No. 1 in the ratings. Leno is clearly having a hard time letting go. He kicked off the chatter about his future with a joke on Tonight about moving to ABC. His recent comments to USA Today ("I am definitely done with NBC") were "taken out of context" according to an NBC spokeswoman. NBC insiders say Leno means well, and doesn't want the job pulled away from O'Brien. "Jay wanted this transition to be smooth and cooperative and collegial. I think him coming here today was a clear message that he was not bitter he wants to go out on top," said Graboff.

As for Leno heading to ABC, the earliest that could happen is January 2010. Leno's contract runs through 2009 and he can't have formal discussions with a new employer until October of that year.

There's been speculation that NBC is going to get cold feet and not make the change (which would mean a massive penalty fee paid to Conan O'Brien). That simply isn't going to happen. NBC's corporate parent General Electric is big on planning for the future, whether it's in the turbine engine division or the guy telling jokes at 11:30. And that guy will be O'Brien.

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