Leno gets five-year extension as host of NBC’s ‘Tonight’ show

NEW YORK — Late-night television’s ratings king, Jay Leno, will be delivering rapid-fire jokes on NBC for years to come.

The network replaced his current deal, which expired at the end of next year, with a new contract that locks him in as “Tonight” show host until the end of 2009. Leno, who replaced Johnny Carson in 1992, eclipsed CBS rival David Letterman in the ratings during the 1995-96 season and hasn’t looked back.

“All that it has done has locked up the pre-eminent player in late-night television for the next few years,” Jeff Zucker, NBC entertainment president, said of the contract extension.

This season, both late-night hosts have increased their audiences, but Leno’s margin of victory has gotten wider. Leno is averaging 6.2 million viewers a night, and Letterman 4.4 million, according to Nielsen Media Research. The five-year agreement was said to be worth about $100 million.

Leno reportedly made $17 million in his previous deal, although he supplements his income each year through appearances as a stand-up comedian. Letterman reportedly makes about $31 million a year.

“I take a certain perverse pleasure in doing more shows per year, for probably half of the money Dave makes, and the show is more profitable, and I get along with the people I work with, and I’m very happy,” Leno told The Associated Press in an interview in 2002.

Although Leno gets the viewers, Letterman has won more critical plaudits. Letterman’s “Late Show” won the Emmy for best variety show for five straight years, until Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart won in 2003. Leno has won the award once, in 1995.

Leno has repeatedly offered to make peace with Letterman, who he beat in the competition for the “Tonight” job more than a decade ago. Letterman has mocked Leno on the air and his staff is clearly frustrated by his No. 2 status in the ratings.

Leno’s contract extension leaves up in the air the future of Conan O’Brien, who has no apparent path for advancement at NBC from his 12:35 a.m. time slot as host of the “Late Night” show. O’Brien is signed through 2005.

“Conan is a hugely important player for us,” Zucker said. “I’m confident there is a long future for Conan at NBC.”

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