NBC's top executives are speaking out for the first time about the bitter battle over The Tonight Show.
Dick Ebersol, Chairman of NBC Universal Sports, is blaming Conan O'Brien for the late night mess. "What this is really all about is an astounding failure by Conan," Ebersol tells The New York Times. "We bet on the wrong guy."
Ebersol is also coming Jay Leno's defense calling O'Brien and David Letterman "chicken-hearted and gutless to blame a guy you couldn't beat in the ratings."
"NBC execs are coming to Leno's defense because that's the horse they're betting on. They want him back at The Tonight Show, and given all the stuff that Conan's been saying about them on their air, they want him gone," says J. Max Robins of the Paley Center for Media.
O'Brien continued slinging insults at his own network Thursday, firing back at those reported threats made by NBC to "ice" him and keep him "off the air for 3 ½ years."
"My response to that is, if NBC doesn't want people to see me, just leave me on NBC," he joked.
The controversy is helping O'Brien; his numbers are up 25 per cent this week. On his show, Jay Leno quipped that he was taking credit: "Actually, The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien ratings have gone up, so...You're welcome!" he said.
O'Brien's departure from NBC seems to be a done deal. According to reports he has reached a settlement with the network. He will reportedly leave with "a large payout" and will be "free to appear elsewhere on television."
O'Brien is said to be booking huge A-list guests for his final shows, which could come as early as next week. Howard Stern, who openly hates Jay Leno, and Tom Hanks have both been invited.
David Letterman continued his angry tirades against Leno, offering a snarky explanation of how this drama will play out: "[Jay] will probably, if I had to bet, will step aside and let Conan continue as the host of The Tonight Show."
And ABC's late night host Jimmy Kimmel insulted Leno right to his face while appearing on his show.
"What's the best prank you've ever pulled?" Leno asked Kimmel.
"I told a guy that five years from now, I'm going to give you my show and then when five years came I gave it to him and then took it back almost instantly," Kimmel said.
"Jay is probably one of the nicest people in television," says Don Sweeney, who worked with Leno as the musical director of The Tonight Show. He's fighting back against the perception that Leno is the villain in the shake-up. "It's not his fault, he's basically following orders. NBC asked him to go to 10, he went to 10. Now they're asking him to go back to 11:30, he's going back to 11:30."