NBC has aggressively denied recent reports that it plans to replace Jay Leno soon as host of “The Tonight Show,” but the network’s top entertainment executive, Robert Greenblatt, recently stirred up a bit of a feud with the late-night star over jokes about the network.
Three executives close to the situation reported this week that Mr. Greenblatt had taken offense to monologue jokes Mr. Leno made last month in the wake of news stories about NBC’s ratings struggles and how the network had fallen into fifth place in the sweeps month of February — behind the Spanish-language network Univision.
Specifically, on the night of Feb. 28, Mr. Leno referenced the news about NBC’s falling into fifth place by telling a series of jokes:
“For the first time in history NBC is going to finish fifth in the ratings period,” Mr. Leno said. “We are behind the Spanish-language network Univision — or as we call it here in Los Angeles: Cinco de Ratings.” He added a series of rapid-fire jokes about how bad off NBC is including: “It’s so bad, ‘The Biggest Loser’ isn’t just a TV show anymore; it’s our new motto.” And: “It’s so bad, NBC called Manti Te’o and asked him to bring in some imaginary viewers.”
Mr. Greenblatt, who has the main responsibility for the network’s prime-time ratings, fired off an e-mail to Mr. Leno, according to those who were aware of the events, and complained. The executives who know about the conflict all asked not to be identified because of their ongoing dealings with NBC.
After the first e-mail from Mr. Greenblatt, two of the executives who know what transpired reported,there was an exchange of pointed e-mails between Mr. Leno and Mr. Greenblatt.
One of the executives who saw the exchange said that Mr. Leno was taken by surprise by Mr. Greenblatt’s comments and strongly defended himself, citing the fact that late-night stars poking fun “at their masters,” as the executive said, is in the long tradition of late-night comedy. Every late-night star, going back at least as far as Johnny Carson, has taken shots at network fortunes within the nightly monologue.
A representative for Mr. Leno said the comedian would not comment on the situation. Mr. Greenblatt was in meetings and was not reachable Friday night, a spokesman said.