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Leno Said to Sign Deal Through 2009

March 30, 2004|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

Jay Leno has clinched a deal that will keep him behind the desk of NBC's "Tonight Show" through 2009, sources familiar with the situation said.

Leno is expected to receive a significant bump in his current annual salary of about $17 million. But executives for General Electric Co.'s NBC declined to comment on a published report that pegged his new salary at $27 million a year.

The host of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" has probably narrowed a once-yawning pay gap between himself and longtime rival David Letterman, who makes an estimated $31 million annually as host of "Late Show" on Viacom Inc.'s CBS.

Johnny Carson, Leno's predecessor as "Tonight" host, was earning a reported $30 million a year when he retired in May 1992.

Although often disdained by TV critics, Leno has led "Tonight" to impressive ratings performances for the last nine years. During last month's sweeps ratings period, "Tonight" averaged 6.5 million viewers, compared with 4.9 million for "Late Show."

Leno's current deal was not set to expire until next year, but he was said to have approached the network in hopes of getting the jump on a new pact. NBC declined to comment, and a representative for Leno could not be reached.

Fortune magazine recently estimated that "Tonight" earns about $100 million annually for NBC, making it the most profitable show on the network's schedule.

NBC will probably now turn its attention to Conan O'Brien, whose "Late Night" follows Leno's show. In 2002, O'Brien signed an $8-million-a-year deal that is set to expire next year. Locking up both hosts for multi-year contracts is considered crucial for the future of NBC's dominance of late night.

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